“You want me to go look for your brother?” Hassan said.
Jamilah rolled her eyes. “You just got here, and now you want to get away? I won’t ask any more personal questions, khayr? You want to play cards? How about rummy?”
Hassan smiled. “My mom taught me to play rummy when I was a kid.”
“Mine too,” Jamilah said. “I think it’s in the Arab mother handbook.” Jamilah shuffled the cards then dealt them.
“You mentioned that I might get my job back,” Jamilah said. “Why do you think that?”
“Just a feeling,” Hassan said as he sorted his cards. “Have you checked your voicemail?”
Jamilah set her cards down and rummaged through the Adidas bag until she found her phone. There were six messages. One was from Shamsi, asking about her mother. One each from Kadija and Muhammad, asking Jamilah to call when she got a chance. And three from Adel, asking her to come into the office and see him.
“I’m not going to beg for my job,” Jamilah said.
“I know. But just see what he wants. It can’t hurt.”
They played a few hands of rummy, Jamilah winning both times.
Nabeel returned with a large plastic bag, the smell of French fries wafting from it. “The cafeteria was closed,” he said. “I drove to Denny’s. Hi, how are you?” He shook Hassan’s hand.
“Hassan works with me,” Jamilah said.
“Oh, right. Jamilah mentioned you a few times. Arrogant jerk, doesn’t talk to anyone, practices martial arts at the park.”
“Nabeel!” She punched him in the shoulder, hard enough to hurt, but Nabeel only laughed.
Hassan smiled. “Really? Maybe I do come off that way. I don’t mean to.”
“Are you the one responsible for turning Jamilah into a little shaykha?”
“That’s between her and Allah,” Hassan said.
There were only two chairs in the room: a wire frame chair and a more comfortable stuffed chair. Hassan left and came back with another stuffed chair.
They portioned the food three ways. Hassan taught Jamilah a short dua’ to say before eating, and Nabeel repeated it as well. Jamilah wondered if Nabeel was feeling the need for some spirituality in his life. For herself, she was finding that her newfound faith had swept in and filled her without displacing anything else. How was that possible?
The tuna melt and fries seemed like the tastiest things she’d ever eaten – well, the second tastiest, after Layth’s Iraqi feast. Had that only been last night? It was hard to believe.
Jamilah finished her food and felt a powerful drowsiness steal over her. She removed the cushions from the stuffed chair and laid them on the floor next to the window. “What will you do, Hassan?”
“Nabeel and I will be fine,” Hassan said. “We’ll be here. You rest.”
Jamilah set the alarm on her phone to wake her for Fajr prayer, and immediately fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When she woke for Fajr, she didn’t know at first where she was. Her shoulder was stiff where she had fallen on it the day before. She silenced the alarm on her phone. Nabeel was asleep in the other stuffed chair, snoring lightly, and Hassan sat in the wire chair, reading Jamilah’s book on the Lebanese civil war. His brow was furrowed and his mouth was a dour line.
“Did you get any sleep?” she asked.
“Little bit,” Hassan said. “I’m alright.”
“Has my mom been awake?
“Not yet.” He lifted the book. “Why do you read this stuff?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s ugly. Why not leave it in the past where it belongs?”
“I’m surprised at you,” Jamilah said. “It’s our history. Anyway, it’s part of what I do. I’m a political scientist.”
“It’s a shameful part of our history,” Hassan said.
“Yes,” Jamilah said, her voice rising. Nabeel stirred in his sleep and shifted position in the stuffed chair, then resumed snoring.
“And the people who did those terrible things are still in power,” Jamilah continued, her voice lower now but no less forceful. “And that pitiful state of affairs will continue until we address it directly. Look at our people. Egyptians fighting Libyans, Syrians against Lebanese, Palestinians against everyone because no one wants them, and all of us bleeding red. I never saw a blood cell wearing a keffiyah or a cross. How can we hope to eliminate dictatorship in our countries, or corruption, or torture, or poverty, if we can’t be totally honest with ourselves?”
Hassan smiled. “You sound like someone I used to know,” he said.
Hassan looked away. Jamilah felt a twinge of jealousy. “A woman?” she asked.
“Yes,” Hassan said.
“Someone in San Francisco?” Jamilah berated herself internally for being so pushy. She knew her jealousy was unattractive and inappropriate, but she couldn’t seem to control it.
“No,” Hassan said. He gazed at the floor, and Jamilah waited, thinking he would speak again. His eyes were distant, and she wondered where he had gone. “Someone from two lifetimes ago,” he said finally. “Come on, let’s get ready for salat.”
They took turns using the restroom to perform wudu’. Nabeel roused and asked if he could join them for prayer. They went to the chapel and prayed Fajr together.
This prayer felt different to Jamilah than the others she had done. Until now, she had been thinking of the salat as an obligation – her end of the deal. This time she felt humbled, as if she were standing directly before Allah. The prayer felt like a refuge. She was not in a sterile hospital chapel with tile floors and wooden pews and a cross on the wall, but in Al-Quds, praying on the stone of the Aqsa compound. The golden Dome of the Rock was covered in snow, and the air was still. Rows of men and women bowed in unison. The air, the birds and the worshipers were expectantly silent, as if they stood in the eye of a storm. O Allah, she said silently. My heart is Yours. No deals. But I ask You to help my mother, and my people. We have suffered so much. We need You. And help Hassan too. He’s hurting inside.
When they returned to the room, Jamilah stood by the bed and held her mother’s thin hand. “It’s alright, mom,” she said. “We’re here.” To her shock, her mother opened her eyes, and looked at Jamilah. “My little Milah,” she said.
Jamilah’s breath caught in her throat, and she began to weep. “How do you feel, Mama?”
“Better,” her mom said. “The chest pain is gone.”
Nabeel went to the other side of the bed and held their mom’s other hand.
“Mama, I’m so sorry for everything,” Jamilah said.
“Hush, Jamilah. This is not your fault.” Her mother looked her up and down. “You are wearing hijab?”
“All this time I thought you were in San Francisco seeing boys and who knows what, and you come back muhajjaba. Milah, I am sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mama.”
“No. Is not okay. I said cruel things to you. I had a dream, Milah. We stood in a garden. But there was a glass wall. I was alone on one side, and you and your father and Nabeel were on the other. Behind you were Arab people as far as my eyes could see. I tried to call to you, but only cold air came from my mouth. This cannot be, Milah.”
Jamilah felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. “What do you want me to do, Mama? I’ll stay and work in the sandwich shop.” From the corner of her eye she saw Hassan slip out of the room, presumably to give her privacy with her mother.
“No, Milah. Go back to San Francisco. Go to law school. I will help you pay. You will make me proud. Just do not be far from me. I never want to lose you, Milah.”
Jamilah could not speak. She put her head on her mother’s chest and cried.
Grey masking tape covered the crack in the glass and reminded Jamilah of her own immaturity. Adel sat back in his chair, seemingly cool as ever. But Jamilah noticed that he was not fiddling with his moustache this time. Four days had passed since he had fired her.
“Please have a seat, Jamilah. Thanks for coming. I’ll get right to it. I made a mistake firing you. I would like you to have your job back.”
Jamilah was surprised that she was not angry. But she wasn’t going to let Adel off the hook so easily.
“You know what?” Jamilah thrust her palm toward Adel, and began to rise from her chair. “You can keep it.”
“Jamilah, please.” Adel stood and indicated Jamilah’s chair. “Please. You are right. I owe you an apology. You can wear your hijab, and I am sorry for telling you not to.”
“You had no right to do what you did,” Jamilah said. “You think you can get rid of me, then call me back like a puppy? You think you’re better than me because you have money? Have you ever lived in a refugee camp? My father grew up in Tel-az-Zaytun. His father was shot by the Phalange. But my father survived, and he came to this country and put himself through medical school. I’m my father’s daughter. I have my pride.”
“Actually, yes,” Adel said.
“Yes, I have lived in a refugee camp. I grew up in a camp in Jordan. My family did not go to Kuwait until sixty-seven. Our life in Kuwait was not so easy as you think. We were segregated and treated like laborers. When they kicked us out, it was a tragedy, like sixty-seven all over again. A half million of us displaced in one week. But Jamilah, these comparisons do not serve our people. Kuwaiti Palestinians, Lebanese Palestinians – there is no such thing. We are all stateless. We have to support one another.”
“Maybe you should have remembered that last week,” Jamilah said.
Adel fingered the tape that covered up the cracked glass. “You are absolutely right,” he said. He smiled at her. “And I should have remembered that you are a Husayni, after all.”
Jamilah frowned. “What does that have to do with it?”
“You should look into your family history,” Adel said. “The Husaynis are one of the most important religious Palestinian families. You are descendants of the Prophet.”
Was that really true? Jamilah had not known that.
“So what made you change your mind?” Jamilah demanded. “Somehow I doubt that your conscience kept you awake at night.”
Adel traced the masking tape with his finger. “Alright,” he said, “I will tell you the truth. Hassan and Muhammad both left work the day I fired you. They are not coming back unless I rehire you. I would not say no to Hassan in any case. Also, one of our clients threatened to pull their account. I don’t know how they knew about these internal matters. But I already felt guilty about letting you go. So I didn’t need much convincing.”
“Which client?” Jamilah was amazed that any client even knew her name. Was it Kammie from Low Ball?
“What’s in it for me?” Jamilah demanded.
“You get your job back. What do you mean?”
Adel laughed. “You are a tough one, Jamilah. Okay. I will increase your percentage to fifty one. You don’t normally get that until you’ve been here three years.”
That was a good offer. Messengers got paid by the job, not by the hour. Jamilah currently received forty five percent of whatever the company charged for a delivery. The rookie rate, they called it. Six percent more would mean an extra – she tried to do the calculation mentally – quite a bit more, anyway.
“Fifty five,” she said.
“Come on, Jamilah. Fifty two, and that is my final offer. That’s almost the four year rate.”
“Deal.” She stood to leave, then turned back as something Adel had said came back to her. “Why can’t you say no to Hassan?”
“Not cannot,” Adel said. “Would not. Hassan and I have… an arrangement. The details are not important. “Oh, and one more thing, Jamilah.”
“The cost of the glass is coming out of your paycheck.”
Jen, decked out in her usual leather jacket and motorcycle boots, hollered into the radio. The printer chattered and spit a row of tags. Alice sat in Muhammad’s chair, looking flustered. She tore the tags as quickly as she could and handed them to Jen. Muhammad’s toys were gone.
“Jams!” Jen said. “Triple nine, looking fine. It’s good to have you back, gravy dog.”
“Am I a gravy dog now?” Jamilah thrust her arms into the air as if hefting a trophy.
Jen pulled several tags from the board and handed them to Jamilah. “Copy these, and get moving, ‘cause they’re burning my eyes. Check when you’re ten-eight.” She turned to Alice. “Two six, get Hassan and Muhammad on the phone and tell them Jams is back. I want them on the road in fifteen minutes.”
Over the next three hours, Jamilah filled her bag and disgorged it twice. At lunchtime she rode to Jackson Park to meet Hassan for prayer.
As she rode into the park she spotted Hassan sitting on one of the square stones around the Fountain of Four Seasons. It was a tall bronze sculpture that looked like four cacti, with water pouring from many small holes. Hassan was staring intently at something in his hand. When Jamilah got closer she saw it was a photo, but as she pulled up beside him, he quickly tucked it away in the side pocket of his bag. He looked up and Jamilah saw that his eyes were red, as if he had been weeping.
“What’s wrong?” Jamilah asked. “What was that you were looking at?”
“Nothing,” Hassan said. “How’s your mom?”
Jamilah pursed her lips, on the verge of pushing Hassan for an answer, but let it go. “She’s much better,” she said. “She’s home now. The CAT scan showed no blockage of the arteries. The doctors think it was something called “broken heart syndrome” – I know, that sounds bad, but it’s basically stress. Apparently in older women, stress hormones can overwhelm the system and affect the heart. But it’s not a true heart attack. She’s almost fully recovered already.”
“Alhamdulillah,” Hassan said. “That sounds promising. Do you know what she was so stressed about?”
“About me, probably,” Jamilah said. “But we’re going to be okay now – Insha’Allah. Nabeel is bringing her to visit me in two weeks. It’s not going to be like before.”
They found a dry spot on the grass and prayed Dhuhr. After prayer, Jamilah said, “You’re going to talk to me, my friend. At the hospital you asked if you could trust me. Here’s the answer: I’ve got your back, and I always will. We make a good team, you and me.” Jamilah picked up a yellowed leaf and studied the veins. She was embarrassed at being so forward.
“If you knew everything about me, you would hate me,” Hassan said.
“I could never hate you.”
“Didn’t you hate me until last week?”
Jamilah laughed. “Okay, yeah. But I could never hate you again.”
“Muhammad likes you, you know.”
“Muhammad’s a nice enough guy, but not my type. His jokes would have me screaming, throwing a chair through the window and running out of the house inside of a month. What about you and Sahar? What’s the deal with you two?”
“What do you mean?” Hassan looked genuinely perplexed.
“Come on, don’t play dumb. It’s obvious there’s something going on. That whole scene at Layth and Kadija’s place the other night?”
“Oh!” Understanding dawned on Hassan’s face, but he looked amused at the same time. “It’s not me she’s after,” he said.
“What do you mean, not you? Who then?”
“Someone else. It’s not my place to say. But there’s nothing between me and her.”
“Don’t you think she’s pretty?” Jamilah immediately regretted voicing her own insecurities, but held herself still as she waited for Hassan’s answer.
“She’s nice enough, but not my type.” Hassan said. He mounted his bike and strapped his helmet on. “Listen, Jamilah. You’re an amazing person, but I’m no good for you. I mean, beyond just being your Muslim brother. I’m not someone who… I just… There’s too much behind me. I can’t accept myself, so how could you accept me?” He shook his head, the corners of his mouth turned down as if his own thoughts dismayed him.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I can’t talk now. I’m still holding one going all the way to South City. I might just BART it down there and back.” He rode away, cutting like a cheetah through the park and onto the street. In seconds he was gone, heading south. He turned at the last second and gave her a raised fist salute, which she returned, smiling. She liked it. The ancient symbol of resistance and solidarity. Corny but cool. What an odd fellow Hassan was.
Jamilah took out a sandwich and a bottle of orange juice. She still remembered the dua’ for eating that Hassan had taught her, and she said it out loud: “Alhamdulillahil-lathee at-’amanaa wa saqaanaa wa ja’alnaa Muslimeen. All praise is due to Allah, who fed us and gave us drink, and made us Muslims.”
She was not angry. Hassan’s words were not a rejection of her but of himself. He said that she could never accept him, but he didn’t know what she could accept. That was for her to decide. Her heart was bigger than he gave her credit for. We’re all human. We make mistakes. But Hassan was a kind man, she could see that. He was a man who could guide her as a Muslim, and who would protect her through fire and ice. She had sometimes worried that a husband would hold her back, but she felt that she could do anything with Hassan by her side.
A union between her and Hassan could never happen unless he was willing to trust her. She would never marry a man who kept secrets. But she would wear him down in time. Jamilah had never given up on anything in her life. Hassan had built a stone fortress around himself, but Jamilah would break it down. His wall of secrets would fall in ruins, just as the Israeli apartheid wall would one day fall. One day the land of zaytun and za’tar would again welcome those who called it home. The children of Palestine would walk its rocky hillsides, and plant their olives, and the rivers would flow free across the earth. The land would offer up milk and honey, and laughter would be heard again. The same would be true for Hassan’s fortified heart.
How did Jamilah know these things were true? Because they had to be. If the sheer force of human will counted for anything, if there was any justice in the universe, then these things would come to pass.
She thought about the funeral Hassan had described. His father’s funeral. Something about it had been nagging at her; but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
After lunch Jen gave her a run all the way down to Bayshore Boulevard, south of Cesar Chavez. All her injuries had healed and she rode hard, breathing steadily. She had learned that she could go forever as long as she managed her breath. Two in, one out. She felt frictionless and powerful. Zanshin. Awareness without thought. I’m in the Zone.
She imagined she was riding an Arabian horse through the streets of Bethlehem, before the Nakbah. She steered the horse by instinct, galloping past carriages, and around street vendors who sold lemons or khubz. She rode smoothly past donkeys, and dodged children who played football in the road.
In her mind she called to the people: Beware! They are coming to steal your nation. Would the people listen to a woman? Would they believe? How could they imagine what was to come?
The spell was broken when, as she zipped back up Third Street, a parked limo opened its door in front of her. She swerved into traffic and struck a slow-moving taxi. She flew off her bike and rolled neatly over the trunk of the taxi, somehow landing on her feet on the other side, unhurt. SubhanAllah! I can’t believe I did that. Standing in the road, traffic flowing around her, she laughed.
She remembered her father’s saying: “Cry when you fall, then stand tall.” But there were no tears today.
She mounted her bike and rode on.
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.