Jamilah’s mouth had been watering for some time as the rich aroma of chicken and lentils wafted out of the kitchen, so she was not surprised when Layth announced that dinner was ready. When she walked into the living room wearing her dress and hijab, all conversation stopped.
“Jams, you totally look like a Muslim woman!” Muhammad said.
“I am Muslim, dummy,” Jamilah said.
“I know, but now you really look the part. Like, you could be in a Muslim magazine or something.”
The five of them squeezed around the small dining table in the narrow kitchen. Layth had laid out a spread of gorgeous dishes that reminded Jamilah of her mother’s cooking.
There was a mezze of chicken kebabs and shorbet adas; a vegetable and egg platter; a tray of yellow rice that smelled of spice…
“The rice smells wonderful,” Jamilah said. “What’s in it?”
“Thank you,” Layth said enthusiastically. “It’s made with turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon. That tray over that is almond salmon with pomegranate sauce; and the drink is shineena, kind of a salty yogurt.”
“Dude, ma-sha-Allah,” Muhammad said. “I’m going to camp on your doorstep from now on.”
Jamilah realized how hungry she was. Her stomach was rumbling. She ate like a wolf, paying little attention to the dinner conversation. At some point she realized that someone was speaking to her.
“Huh, what?” she mumbled through a mouthful of fish.
Hassan smiled. “I said, how do you feel now about your deal? Do you regret it?”
“No, it feels right. I mean, I understand that we’re not supposed to make deals with Allah, but doing wudu’ – it was incredible. I’m nervous about tomorrow, though. I’m fine here with you guys, but out there…”
“I don’t mean to presume,” Hassan said, “But I’m proud of you. It’s an extraordinary thing to make such a major commitment and follow through. In a way you sisters are the standard-bearers of the deen, because we men can ‘pass’ for non-Muslims if we choose, but the hijabis are out there, wearing their faith on their sleeves, so to speak. So ma-sha-Allah, may Allah give you strength and certainty on the path.”
“Uhh, thanks,” Jamilah said. Why do I feel so tongue-tied with him? Until today I detested him. “But what am I going to wear for work tomorrow? I can’t exactly ride my bike in this dress.”
“You don’t have to,” Kadija said. “Was that your regular uniform you had on when you arrived? The long pants and long-sleeved t-shirt?”
“In winter, yeah.”
“Well, that’s fine. Just add the hijab scarf to the mix. No one will even notice it under your helmet. In summer you might stand out a little more, but not much, I’d imagine.”
“Okay,” Jamilah said. “I can do that. That’s a relief, actually.”
“Do you live near downtown?” Hassan asked.
Jamilah shrugged. “Post and Leavenworth.”
“Close enough. You could go home on your lunch break and do your salat. Or, if you can’t get home, radio me and we’ll pray together at Jackson Park. There’s also the masjid on Market, it’s always open and they’re friendly to women, not like some.”
After dinner, Layth brought out iced Turkish coffee, and a dessert that he called halawat sha’riyyah – hairy sweet – that consisted of buttered vermicelli with sugar, walnuts and pistachios.
“Jamilah,” Kadija said. “Did you go to college? Do you mind if I ask?”
“I went to Fresno State,” Jamilah said. “I have a Bachelor’s in international relations. I’ve always been kind of a political animal, free Palestine, all of that.”
“I think we knew that, Jams,” Muhammad said. “From your protest helmet.”
Jamilah sometimes forgot the “FREE PALESTINE” slogan she had written on the side of her helmet.
“My mother hates my interest in politics,” she said. “We haven’t spoken in a year.” She remembered something she’d been wanting to ask. “Hassan, how did you catch that beer bottle today? I didn’t see it coming.”
“Zanshin,” Hassan said.
“In Japanese martial arts there’s a concept called zanshin. It’s a relaxed state of total awareness, where one part of your mind is focused on the task at hand, while another part is open to the environment. I’d be surprised if you haven’t experienced this on the job. You’ve been messengering for about a year, right? Haven’t you experienced this state of mind where you’re zooming down the street holding five or six packages, and part of your mind is mapping your route, while another part is aware of the movement of cars, peds, buses, watching for doors opening, just taking in everything without thought, you know?”
“Yeah!” Jamilah nodded her head. “Just lately, the last few months, I’ve noticed that. I call it ‘being in the zone’, where it’s like I’m looking at nothing, but I see everything. I don’t even see where things are, I see where they’re going to be.”
“Exactly,” Hassan said. “That’s zanshin. War correspondents used to call it the thousand-yard-stare. They made it out to be shell-shock, where soldiers were so traumatized that they couldn’t focus. But that’s not it. I mean, maybe part of it is emotional detachment, where you shut off the part of you that feels, so you can go about the business of war. I’m sure Layth knows what I mean.”
Layth nodded but said nothing.
“What these writers missed,” Hassan continued, “Is that the thousand-yard-stare is literally a way of seeing. It’s a sort of unfocused gaze that allows you to access your peripheral vision, and be sensitive to movement, while still recognizing what’s in front of you. A thousand yards is the danger zone, right? It might be the distance to the perimeter, or the distance a bullet can travel and still be lethal. So the soldier isn’t staring at nothing, or concussed, he’s watching the perimeter. The thing is, martial artists can turn it on and off, and us messengers too. The problem with soldiers is that they get stuck with the stare turned on because mentally they can’t break out of combat mode. You see the same thing with convicts. Especially in maximum security.”
“And which are you?” Jamilah asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Which are you? I was asking you about catching the bottle, and you gave me this whole zanshin speech.” Jamilah smiled, to soften her words. “So which are you: messenger, martial artist, soldier, ex-con, or all of the above?”
Hassan pushed his dessert around on the plate. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I spend a lot of time alone. So when I’m around people I’m comfortable with, I talk too much.”
“Oh, Hassan,” Jamilah said. “I was teasing. Actually, I want to thank you for what you did today, helping me. All of you. I truly appreciate it. And Hassan, please don’t take any crazy chances. I know you were sure of yourself today, but that guy could have stabbed you.”
“That wouldn’t matter,” Hassan said.
“What do you mean, it wouldn’t matter?” Jamilah said.
Hassan was silent. “Nothing,” he said finally.
“No, it’s not nothing. Why would you say that it wouldn’t matter?”
“Because it doesn’t matter. Get hurt, live, die… whatever happens to me is okay. I’ve earned it. I don’t have any family anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.”
“It would matter to me!” Jamilah said.
“It would matter to all of us, brother,” Kadija said.
“You do have a family, dude,” Muhammad said. “Us. We’re your family.”
“Absolutely,” Layth said.
Clearly Hassan was a more complicated and vulnerable man that Jamilah had realized. Jamilah herself was beginning to relax. Maybe it was the great food, or the easy dinner time conversation, but she felt her tension draining away. It was not a feeling she was used to. Most of the time she was bitter about one thing or another: her father dying when she was so young, her mother’s judgments, the struggles of her people, the Israeli oppression. She had never been around people who seemed to trust each other so much, who had no pretensions, who weren’t playing social games or trying to one-up each other. In that moment she fully agreed with Muhammad – they were like a single family, sitting around the dinner table.
“Family!” she said.
Muhammad laughed. “You’re, like, five minutes late with that, Jams.”
“Oh, shut up,” Jamilah said.
Jamilah had not failed to notice that Hassan had evaded her question about being a soldier or ex-convict, but she didn’t want to push right now.
“Have you guys heard,” Muhammad said, “that coffee was discovered by an Arab shepherd like, ten thousand years ago?”
Layth nodded. “I’ve heard that.”
“Apparently,” Muhammad said, “the shepherd noticed that his goats became frisky after eating a certain plant. So he brewed it. Am I the only one who thinks that’s strange? If I notice my cat acting frisky, should I say, ‘Let me see what disgusting thing my cat ate, so I can try some too?’”
Layth chuckled. “I don’t want to keep you guys,” he said. “I know you messenger types are always in bed by ten. Hassan, could you say a few words to close out?”
“I think you or Kadija should do it,” Hassan said. “We’re in your house.”
“No, please,” Kadija said. “We’d like to hear your words.”
Hassan nodded. “Okay… there’s a hadith that I was just thinking about. The Prophet sal-Allahu-alayhi-wa-sallam, said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that there are seven kinds of people whom Allah will shade on the day on which there is no shade except His shade – meaning the Day of Judgment.” Hassan began counting on his fingers. “The seven are a just imam; a youth who grows up worshipping Allah; a man whose heart is attached to the masjid so that he misses it whenever he’s not there; two people who love each other for the sake of Allah and meet and part on that basis; a man who remembers Allah when he’s alone and weeps; and a man who gives charity and conceals it so his left hand doesn’t know what the right hand gave.”
“That’s only six,” Jamilah said.
“I can see that,” Hassan said, waggling his fingers. “Hold on…” Hassan looked at the ceiling and closed his eyes, then opened them. “I can’t remember the other one. Do any of you know?”
No one did.
“Anyway, what I wanted to say is that some of those categories will never apply to me – I didn’t grow up worshiping Allah, for example. But maybe some do apply, Insha’Allah. I was thinking specifically about those who love each other only for the sake of Allah. They say America is the great melting pot, but we all know that we’re cut up like a pizza in this country. But here we are, a white man, an African-American woman, and three Arabs all from different countries, and we’re totally comfortable with each other. And I really appreciate what you all said about us being a family…” Hassan’s paused, and seemed to be struggling for words. He rubbed his face.
Layth put his hand on Hassan’s shoulder. “It’s okay, brother. Go on.”
“Because,” Hassan continued, “like I said, I don’t have any family, I mean blood family. All I have is this Ummah. I often think I’m not worthy of it. But then I think, if Allah chose to guide me, then He must see something worthwhile in me. If He saved me, then He did so for a reason. So I strive, and I keep hope in my heart. May Allah make us among those who are shaded on that Day.”
Everyone except Jamilah said “Ameen,” and then Jamilah added her voice as well. “Ameen!” She was deeply moved. She had misjudged this man so badly. There was a lesson in humility in that. How odd that you could judge a stranger as arrogant, not realizing that doing so was itself the height of conceit.
Instead she found Hassan to be incredibly vital, but troubled. Why did that appeal to her? Was that a personality flaw of hers, that she needed a man as strong as her, and equally flawed?
At one point during dinner, Hassan turned to Jamilah. “Can I share my thoughts with you about something?”
“You mentioned your estrangement from your mother. I wanted to say that being a believer is not only about our religious practice. Compassion is a big part of it. We’re taught in Islam to have mercy on our parents in their old age. And we’re taught to forgive, in general.”
“Hey, I’m all for it,” Jamilah said. “Now tell her. She won’t even talk to me.”
Hasan nodded. “Keep trying. Our parents are here for a while, then they’re gone, and we spend the rest of our lives missing them.”
Jamilah certainly knew the truth of that statement. She’d been missing her father for most of her life.
As they were hoisting their bikes down the front steps, Hassan said, “A man who wouldn’t be seduced!”
“Excuse me?” Jamilah said.
“That’s the one I forgot. A man who – well, a beautiful woman tries to seduce him and he refuses because he’s conscious of Allah.”
“Oh.” Jamilah nodded.
“For a second there,” Muhammad said, “we thought you were describing your relationship with Sahar.”
Kadija and Layth insisted on stashing Jamilah’s bicycle in the trunk of their car and giving her a ride home. Jamilah did not object. The ibuprofen had worn off, and her body ached. She said goodbye to Hassan and Muhammad, who were riding.
Kadija made a gift to Jamilah of the dress, hijab, and musalla; and they agreed that Jamilah would come to the house every Friday night so that she could continue to learn the prayer.
“You are all so nice,” Jamilah said. “I’ve never known people like you.”
“I think what you’re doing is wonderful,” Kadija said. “We’re honored to be able to help you.”
“I just hope my boss feels the same way,” Jamilah said. “Especially after Sahar gets done with him.”
Jamilah was relieved to be home. She propped her bike in the corner and kicked her shoes off by the door. Shamsi, still wearing her scrubs, sat cross-legged on the sofa with a blanket around her shoulders, eating take-out Indonesian food and watching Casablanca. Shamsi took one look at Jamilah and let out a cackle.
“Were you at a costume party?” she said. “You look like my grandmother.”
Jamilah was too tired for anger. “No,” she said wearily. “I’m going to wear hijab from now on, and I’d like you to respect that.”
Shamsi’s eyes bugged. “Are you serious? But why?”
“It’s a decision I’ve made, that’s all. I want to be closer to Allah… start learning my religion.”
“But why? Did something happen? Did someone die? Is your mom okay?”
“She’s fine, as far as I know. Look, I’ve had a really long day, I need to get some sleep.”
“Sure Milah, okay. I’m sorry for laughing. Whatever you want to do, you know. Even if it is crazy.” She looked as if she were fighting not to laugh again.
“Good night, Shamsi. Tisbahi ‘alaa khayr.”
No one noticed Jamilah’s hijab the next day. It was drizzling, and everyone was covered up anyway. She managed to get a half hour for lunch, and met the secretary from Low Ball at the Flying Spaghetti. The girl, whose name was Kammie, was immensely entertained by Jamilah’s tale of recovering her bike. I earned that lunch, Jamilah thought afterwards.
There were no standbys, and Jamilah became increasingly anxious about her noon prayer. In the afternoon she had a tag going to the Stanford Court hotel, at the top of Nob Hill. Ordinarily she would catch a tow on the cable car, and risk being caught by the operator. But she decided to muscle it. She swung by her apartment on the way, performed her prayer, then huffed and puffed her way straight up Leavenworth to the top of the hill.
In a part of the lobby of the Stanford Court, near the entrance, the ceiling rose into a large dome. Jamilah had noticed that if she stood directly beneath the dome and spoke, her voice would be amplified almost as much as if she had a microphone. After she made her delivery to the concierge, she stood beneath the dome and said, “Allah!” Her voice echoed and rose like a wave. A few hotel guests at the concierge desk glanced her way. Jamilah smiled and hurried out of the hotel.
As she was coming out of the Stanford Court, Jen called on the radio.
“Triple nine, Jams.”
“I’m guessing you’re on Nob Hill about now.”
“Affirmative, just dropped the Stanford Court.”
“Grace Cathedral, eleven hundred Cal, go to the office on the Taylor Street side, get a bank deposit for Union Bank.”
“Check, ten four.”
Jen never ceased to amaze. She had twenty couriers on the board, including two scooters and a pickup truck, and at any given moment they might be holding fifty or sixty deliveries – more on a busy day – but somehow she kept it all in her head. Not only that, but her brain was constantly mapping everyone’s routes and tracking their position. She could give you a two-hour run and then in the middle call out a pickup a block from where you stood. She was only twenty three years old and took night classes at City College. Jamilah was sure that Jen could do anything she wanted to do. She could be a nuclear scientist if she wanted.
The rain was coming down harder. The single commandment for a messenger in wet weather was, keep the package dry. So you wrapped everything in plastic garbage bags, and double-bagged them if necessary.
There were hazards everywhere in the rain. Drivers might not see a bike on the road. Metal surfaces like manholes and streetcar tracks became impossibly slippery. The metal grates that released steam from the underground were particularly hazardous. Even in dry weather, riding on them was like riding on ice; but if you hit one in the rain your wheels would go right out from under, and the steel grate would tear your skin to ribbons. Cheese graters, messengers called those grates.
But none of that mattered to management or clients. Just keep the package dry.
Jamilah violated that commandment. She was coming down California street off the hill, on her way to Union Bank, and didn’t see a pothole in the road. Her front wheel stuck in the hole and she went flying off the bike. When she hit the ground she heard a loud snapping noise and thought she had broken a bone, but it was only her wooden clipboard breaking in two from the force of the fall. Her bag opened and the packages scattered across the road. One went into the gutter, where the water was flowing like a stream. Jamilah scrambled to her feet and snatched the package out of the gutter. Don’t let it be the bank deposit. It was wrapped in a heavy duty garbage bag, but water had gotten into the bag, and the package – a large manila envelope – was soaked. It was the bank deposit.
Jamilah collected her packages, and got back on her bike. Her shoulder had struck the pavement and it ached. She delivered the wet package, apologizing profusely to the bank teller who signed for it.
A half hour later, Jen called on the radio.
“Triple nine, come into the office. Sahar wants to see you.”
With a feeling of dread, Jamilah made her last delivery and headed in. Sahar sat in one of the six customer service stations at the back. She was on the phone. She put up her finger, indicating that Jamilah should wait.
Jamilah stood there, dripping. Her shoulder pulsed with pain, and her wrist still hurt from yesterday. What a mess I am. Eric, who worked at the station next to Sahar’s, was on break. Jamilah took off her bag and helmet and sat in Eric’s chair.
“Yeah!” She stood.
Sahar looked her up and down. “You’re still wearing that?”
Sahar pointed at Jamilah’s head. “That.”
The hijab. Jamilah had forgotten all about it. “So? It’s just a scarf. I’m in uniform.”
“That’s hardly the standard uniform,” Sahar said. “Anyway, what happened with the Union Bank delivery? I got a call from the accounts manager at Grace Cathedral.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I hit a pothole, and I fell.”
“You do know that you have to keep your deliveries dry no matter what?”
“Yes, yes I know. It was an accident. Was the bank deposit ruined?”
“No, it was salvageable apparently, but that’s not the point.”
“Okay. What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. Go back to work. Just be more careful. I’m not going to mark this in your file, but it does get noted in the computer.”
“Listen,” Jamilah said. “About last night -” Sahar cut her off with a wave of a hand, and turned back to her phone.
Jamilah stopped at the dispatch station, surveying the board. Seven rows of clear plastic slats were set into the wall. Paper tags were dropped into the slots, each tag representing an active delivery. On each was written in marker the number of the courier to whom it was assigned. Jen stood before the board, now and then glancing at a computer monitor that displayed additional information about each tag, including time left on the delivery. The jobs were color coded according to how close they were to expiration. The radio microphone and speaker stood on the desk beside her, emitting a constant chatter as couriers called in or spoke to each other over the air.
A few feet away, Muhammad was set up with his own monitor and telephone. A printer beside him chattered as it spit out new tags. He tore them off and handed them to Jen. Jamilah knew that Muhammad also maintained notes on the computer about any problems that might occur with a job; and he took phone calls on the toll free number from messengers who called in if they needed more information, or ran into snags. He had a copy of the Wall Street Journal on his desk, and a few toys – Jamilah could see a set of wind-up chattering teeth, a Wheel-o, and a Spider Man action figure.
On the other side of the room, a tall heavyset man ran the out-of-town dispatch board that covered the entire Bay Area. Jamilah had often heard him shouting at drivers, even calling them names. She was glad she wasn’t on that board, even if those guys did make more money.
“What up, Jams?” Muhammad said.
Jen looked over her shoulder. “All sorted out, triple nine?”
“I guess so.”
“It’s slowing down. I’ve got a run down Third Street if you want it, or you could call it a day. You look beat.”
“I’m going to call it, if you don’t mind. I feel half human.”
Muhammad laughed. “You’re as human as they come, Jams.”
Jamilah wondered if that was a compliment or an insult.
The next morning, Jen told Jamilah to see Adel before getting on the road. Jamilah climbed the steps to Adel’s upstairs office. Was this about the Union Bank delivery? Was she in bigger trouble than she thought?
Adel’s glass-topped wooden desk filled half the room. On the wall was a map of San Francisco with the delivery zones marked and color-coded. Beside it, thumb tacked to the wall, hung a five foot wide United States flag.
“Have a seat, Jamilah,” Adel said. She sat and waited as Adel tugged on his moustache hairs and looked her up and down.
“If this is about the Union Bank thing,” Jamilah said, “It was an accident. I’m usually very careful, but I hit a pothole and -”
“Union Bank?” Adel pulled on his moustache. “I haven’t heard about that. No, this is about – “ he wagged a finger in the direction of Jamilah’s head – “your scarf.”
“Sahar.” Jamilah said heatedly. “She should mind her own business.” Jamilah knew she was not helping herself. She took a deep breath.
“Sahar?” Adel said. “She hasn’t said a word. I saw you in dispatch yesterday. Jamilah, we try to maintain a professional work environment here. We can’t afford to give clients the wrong impression. Some of our colleagues already have a nickname for us, did you know that? They call us, ‘West Bank Delivery’.”
“I’m very professional,” Jamilah said. “I start early every morning, I’m polite with the clients – in fact one of them took me to lunch today – and I ride as hard as anyone on the board.”
“Yes, yes,” Adel said, tugging on his moustache again. “But we cannot afford to be seen as an ‘Arab company’, do you see what I mean? These are difficult times politically for our people in this country, and – “
“I’m not taking off the hijab,” Jamilah said. “It’s a decision I’ve made, and it’s my right. It’s between me and God.”
Adel sat back in his chair. “I am sorry you feel that way,” he said. “But if that is your final word, then I must let you go. Please hand in your radio and bag before you leave. You may keep the uniform. If you change your mind, please come back. I have no hard feelings and -”
Jamilah cut off Adel’s speech by rising to her feet, drawing her radio from its holster, and slamming it onto the desk. The glass covering the desk cracked, and Adel fell backwards out of his chair and tumbled onto the carpet. Without another word, Jamilah turned her back on him and stomped down the steps. In the dispatch office, she thrust her bag into Muhammad’s arms.
“I’m fired,” she said. “Apparently our flag-waving boss thinks that wearing hijab is un-American. Tell Hassan goodbye for me.”
Muhammad sat open-mouthed for a moment, then said, “What?”
Jen said, “That’s crazy. He can’t do that.”
“He just did,” Jamilah said, and marched out of the office. She heard Muhammad calling after her as she rode away, but she did not stop, even when the tears began to flow.
You can read Part 5 here: The Deal, Part 5 – The Price of Faith
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.