Layth cruised up Highway 101 in the fast lane, on his way back to the City. He'd dropped a fare at the airport, waited in the cab line and picked up a return fare. Between the two, he'd already covered his gate – you couldn't beat that.
The three month probationary period that Kadija had demanded had gone by like a dream. Layth had never felt so at peace – indeed, he'd never believed he could. He whistled as he drove his cab, and recited verses from the Qurʾān at other times. And yes, sometimes he still popped in a CD and listened to the cool, flowing sounds of Pieces of a Dream. But he was living the dream now, building it day by day.
His past had not disappeared. The events that had haunted him in the past still troubled his thoughts. The shame that had kept him stuck in place lingered in his chest like a blood stain that wouldn't wash out. He still dreamed about Iraq at times, but it was all less intense: painful but not paralyzing. At the same time, unfamiliar emotions blossomed like a newly planted garden. Hope. Joy. Self-acceptance.
He was not a singing, swaying hippie with blonde dreadlocks and a tie-dyed t-shirt, smoking pot and singing Dust in the Wind. He wasn't happy all the time. He even had moments of doubt. But he was at peace, and good God that was a relief! His scars had stopped itching entirely, and he didn't feel like psychoanalyzing himself on that matter. He was glad enough to let it be. alḥamdulillāh. His new favorite word. It said everything, it encompassed happiness, food on the table, and life itself.
He thought about Hassan's strategy for living with memories of war. Remember the good deeds you've done and the people you saved. Layth had been replaying an incident in his mind. Two years ago he'd been on a search mission south of Baghdad with his squad. There had been a rumor of a cache of weapons in a riverbank village. The squad was on foot, moving through light forest and wetlands. It was springtime and the rivers and streams were swollen.
When they arrived at the village they found it had been torched by insurgents. Smoking rubble lay everywhere and the village stank of gunsmoke and death. If there was a weapons cache, Louis (in the context of the war he would always be Louis in his own mind) could not find it. The villagers were in bad shape. Some had been killed and buried hastily in shallow graves. Many were wounded, and all were hungry. They feared another attack and were trying to escape into the marshes south of the village, but the children and elderly could not cross the wide river.
“We'll carry them.” That was Becket, the com specialist.
“Forget that,” Hale said. “I didn't sign up to be no mule.” Hale was a big country boy from one of the flyover states. Ferocious fighter, bad attitude.
Louis considered. The mission was the weapons dump, but they weren't due back at the FOB for another six hours.
“Alright,” Louis said. “Becket, call in a flyover. South side of the river, five clicks deep. In the meantime, let's give these people whatever food we can spare. Tobias, see what you can do for the wounded. Up to half our med supplies, no more.”
Ten minutes later an F-16 roared overhead, buzzed the south shore twice, then radioed an all-clear. Louis nodded. “Alright, everyone. Find a piggyback partner. Young and old only. Don't touch any women over twelve or under sixty. Hale, start with that boy there.” Louis knew that Hale had a little brother back home. Maybe he'd connect to the kid.
It was an unforgettable sight. Nine men wading across a fast-moving river, water lapping at their waists, each with an Iraqi child or senior on his back, not to mention their packs and weapons. For the women they stretched a rope halfway across the river, anchored by two soldiers on each side. The women grasped the rope as they struggled through the current. Once they made it midway, the soldiers shifted the rope to the other half. People shouted instructions and encouragement to one another, making themselves heard over the din of the rushing water.
The boy on Hale's back wrapped his arms tightly around the big man's neck. On the opposite bank of the river the boy hugged Hale's leg, and Louis thought Hale looked almost teary-eyed.
Louis' first passenger was a frail, elderly man wearing sandals, a white robe and a red-and-green checked keffiyeh on his head. His white beard tickled the back of Louis' neck as they crossed. The cool water came up to Louis' chest at its deepest point; he struggled to keep his footing. Halfway across the river the man said in Arabic, “God bless you, my son. I am Shaykh Nidal At-Timimi and you are my honored guest anytime.”
It took four trips to ferry everyone across, and the men returned to the FOB weary but talking animatedly about the experience. That had been a good day. One of those rare nights when Louis had gone to sleep without wondering why he was there.
He would hold on to that day. Maybe one day he would return and find Shaykh Nidal, and pray with him. He smiled at the thought.
His cell phone rang, interrupting his reveries. He checked the caller ID. His mom. He sighed.
“John 3:16,” his mother said. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son – “
Layth interrupted her. “I know the verse, Mom. And I'm great, thanks. How are you?”
“Then why don't you follow it?”
“Because I don't believe it. In Islam we have our own holy book, the Qurʾān, and it says that God does not beget, nor was He begotten, and there is none like Him.
“But that's not a real holy book. The Bible is the only holy book.”
“Gotta go, Mom. I'm working. Love you.” Layth hung up.
As Layth expected, his mother had freaked out about his conversion to Islam. When he first told her, she insisted that he'd obviously been brainwashed by the Iraqis. “They've done a Manchurian Candidate on you,” she said. “Don't worry, I'll get you straightened out. No son of mine is going to Hell.” She flew to San Francisco on the next plane.
When Layth picked her up at the airport she started right in. “Jesus died for your sins. How can you betray him? I didn't raise you to be a terrorist…” Layth kept his mouth shut and nodded his head. He did not tell her about the name change.
At Layth's apartment, his mother commenced her inspection, presumably searching for bomb-making materials and multiple wives in burqas. What she found instead was a tidy apartment that smelled of lemon cleaner and Chinese breakfast buns; smooth jazz playing on the radio; and Layth clean and sober. At prayer time she watched as Layth bowed and prostrated.
“Who do you pray to?” she demanded.
“To God, of course,” Layth said. “The Creator of all. What you would call God the Father.”
“Is that so? And what about Jesus?”
“Muslims believe in Jesus as a Prophet of God and a great man. We honor him but we don't worship him.”
Mom didn't like that, but on the whole the situation was apparently less dire than she expected. She returned to Florida still skeptical, but no longer angry. Miracles happen, Layth thought. What's next, world peace?
As for Kadija, Layth had been counting the months, weeks, days and lately the hours. Today would be exactly three months since he'd taken his shahadah. He had tried not to obsess over Kadija, and he'd succeeded to some degree. But if there was such a thing as true love in this life, then this was it. The woman was in his bones like marrow.
He was prepared for the possibility that she might refuse him. He knew he was no great catch. A war veteran with a scarred face and a past problem with alcohol. Taxi driver. Fledgling Muslim. She'd be right to turn him down. If that happened, he couldn't lie, he'd be devastated. But he'd survive. He was Muslim now, do or die. There wouldn't be any falling apart, drinking or any of that mess. Layth was on the path now, in the deen, and there he would remain, inshā'Allāh.
Right on cue, as if his phone had been counting the days as well, it buzzed with a text message alert. Louis checked it surreptitiously, not wanting his passenger to see him using the phone. From Hassan: Meet me at the masjid tonight at 8pm. He didn't say whether Kadija would be there. Huh.
After work Layth showered, prayed Maghreb, then donned his expensive woolen peacoat to ward off the January chill. A Christmas gift to himself the year before last, the coat used to be the only nice thing he owned. Layth smiled at that. The coat wasn't quite so beautiful now, with the knife slash across the shoulder and the blood stain that had faded but not quite disappeared.
When he entered the Islamic Center his heart leaped into his throat. Kadija sat on the floor in the rear of the masjid with Hassan, imām Salman, a young Egyptian-American brother named Muḥammad who worked with Hassan, and… Leslie? Kadija's neighbor? She wore a blue scarf – one of Kadija's probably – and was looking around with wide eyes, as if entranced by the idea that she was in a mosque. She saw Layth and gave him a little wave.
Layth offered the greetings and sat next to Hassan. “What's up?” he asked. “I thought this conversation might be a little more, I don't know, private. Me, Kadija and Hassan.” He glanced at Kadija, who gave him nod and a smile.
“No brother,” imām Salman said. “We need witnesses.” imām Salman, an Egyptian with a bald head and ready smile, had been present when Layth took his shahadah, and since then Layth had come to know and respect him. Salman was knowledgeable and open-minded. At the moment, however, he wasn't making sense.
“I am acting as wali or representative for sister Kadija,” Salman said. “Muḥammad and Hassan are witnesses.”
“And I'm here for moral support,” Leslie said with a grin.
Layth had expected this meeting would be an opportunity for him to talk to Kadija – with Hassan present – and find out if she had any interest in marrying him. Befuddled, he listened as imām Salman proceeded to praise Allāh, then recite a few verses from the Qurʾān. He then recited some statements from the Prophet Muḥammad on the importance of marriage.
“Marriage is a joy in many ways,” imām Salman continued. “You share the ups and downs of life with someone you love. You support them in sickness, poverty, debt, and grief; and in health, wealth, and joy. You strive together to worship Allāh more perfectly, and accompany each other on the road to Jannah, inshā'Allāh.”
“We know the statement of the Prophet that we are not believers until we love for our brothers what we love for ourselves. Our husbands and wives are also our Muslim brothers and sisters, so we must love for our spouses what we love for ourselves. Put your loved one first. Ask yourself, 'How can I make my spouse happy? How can I be a springboard for my spouse to achieve his or her dreams? How can I illuminate for my spouse the path to Paradise?”
“If only one of you does this then he may begin to feel resentment. But if both of you do it, you will find a lifetime of joy, inshā'Allāh.”
Imām Salman spoke for another ten minutes. He said that people tended to focus only on love, but that what marriage needed most of all was kindness, respect, trust and communication, and that if those four elements were present then the love would sprout and grow into a great and fruitful tree.
The words were beautiful, and Layth was just thinking that he would love to have imām Salman say these exact words as a marriage sermon at his wedding someday, when the imām wrapped it up and said, “What do you have for mahr?”
“What?” Layth said. “I don't understand.”
Hassan leaned in and whispered in Layth's ear. “Mahr is the dowry gift. You have to give the bride something of value. It's a condition for the wedding.”
Layth's eyes opened wide. “Wedding? What wedding?”
Everyone turned to look at him. “Why do you think we are here, brother?” imām Salman said. “I thought you were ready to marry this sister.”
“Marry?” Layth's brain tried to process this information, but his thoughts were logjammed. “I…”
“Hassan!” Kadija said. “Didn't you talk to him?”
“I told him to be here,” Hassan said defensively. “I assumed you two had spoken.”
“I wish I were recording this,” Muḥammad said. “It'd be a hit on YouTube.”
“It seems there has been a misunderstanding,” imām Salman said. “Brother Layth, do you wish to marry Kadija?”
“Well, yes, very much, but.. I mean.. yeah!”
“Good. Ma-sha-Allāh. Where is the mahr?”
“I don't have anything,” Layth said. “I mean, I could put something together by tomorrow…”
“I'll take your peacoat,” Kadija said.
Layth laughed, not sure if she was joking. She wanted his coat? “Uhh… it's my only winter coat.”
“It's what I'm asking for,” Kadija said.
“It's damaged.” He fingered the slash. “And a blood stain…”
“Louis Carl Hedstrom!” Kadija exclaimed. “You know what? Forget it. I have other places I can be.” She began to rise, clearly upset. “imām Salman, I'm sorry we wasted your time.”
Hassan whispered in Layth's ear again. “Give her your coat and count your blessings. Some women ask for gold and a new house. You'd better do something quick.”
“Wait!” Layth stood. “I'm sorry, I was caught off guard. I…” Layth looked around at the others, all watching him, and his face flushed. “I have wanted no other woman from the moment I laid eyes on you, Kadija. I would be honored to be your husband. And I'm grateful that you would accept this humble coat as your mahr. Please, take it.” He removed his coat and handed it to the imām. “Also… I promise you everything that I have, my heart and… the strength of my hands, and…”
“Louis,” Kadija said, wiping a tear from her cheek.
“You're sweet, but you're babbling.” She nodded to imām Salman. “Please continue,” she said.
“Do you accept this coat as mahr?” the imām asked.
“Yes, I do,” Kadija said.
“Do you accept brother Layth's proposal of marriage, freely and with no reservations?”
“And are you, Hassan and Muḥammad, witnesses to this?”
They both murmured their assent.
“Do the witnesses have anything to say?”
“Marriage is made in heaven,” Muḥammad said, “But so are thunder and lightning.”
Layth laughed in spite of himself, and Kadija said, “Be quiet, brother.”
“Then,” the imām said, “In the name of Allāh, the Compassionate, the Merciful; and acting as Kadija's wali and representative; and by the authority vested in me by the State of California; I now pronounce Layth and Kadija husband and wife.”
The imām produced a certificate of marriage from an accordion file. Layth and Kadija each signed it, then the two witnesses, and the imām last of all.
Layth hugged the men one by one, then faced Kadija. He could hardly believe this was real. It was like one of those sweet dreams that you woke from with a feeling of wistfulness, wishing you could go back to sleep and re-enter the dream, but knowing it was impossible. Except this wasn't a dream. SubḥānAllāh!
Kadija lifted her chin and smiled at Layth. “Husband,” she said.
Layth broke into a wide grin that crinkled even his eyes. “I guess I am. Now what?”
“I have a suggestion,” Hassan said. He handed Layth an envelope. “Open this later. And mabrook, brother. Congratulations.”
Layth and Kadija sat hand-in-hand on a wooden swing on the deck of their cabin. Behind them the coastal mountain range rose like an ancient army of giants, covered in sequoia, fir and majestic redwood trees. Before them was a well-tended lawn blooming with wildflowers, then a steep cliff that plummeted into the wild blue Pacific, where the waves seemed to crash in time with Layth's own heart. A while ago he'd spied a pod of dolphins passing by, leaping out of the water as if celebrating the joy of life. Now he watched a family of sea lions on the beach below, basking in the sun and occasionally barking loudly. The breeze blew steadily off the ocean, carrying to Layth and Kadija the scents of seaweed and far-off shores.
It was all incredibly beautiful and vital, but none more so than the warm hand in his. My wife's hand. Layth's scars had not itched in some time, and he did not shrink from Kadija's touch.
“I still can't believe Hassan did this,” Kadija said.
“He's an… interesting brother,” Layth said. “I'll always be in his debt.”
“Not in his debt,” Kadija said. “His friend and brother, like he said.”
The envelope Hassan had given Layth contained a brochure and reservation for a lodge on the Big Sur – a stretch of rugged, pristine California coastline that was as stunningly beautiful as anywhere on earth. Hassan had given them a three-day honeymoon trip, all expenses paid. Layth couldn't understand how a bike messenger could afford that. Maybe he'd taken up a collection at the masjid? There had also been a note:
“Brother Layth, As-salamu alaykum. Please accept this wedding gift, and may Allāh bless your honeymoon. Knowing you has inspired me, and I am grateful. If I can be so presumptuous, I feel like you are someone I can talk to, after not being able to talk to anyone for a long time. I hope that we will always be friends and brothers. May Allāh grant you and Kadija joy in the dunya and aakihrah. – Hassan.”
“Are you happy?” Kadija said.
Layth laughed. “Are you kidding? I feel like I'm high on something I never knew existed. I have Allāh, I have Islam, and I have you, my Egyptian queen.”
It was Kadija's turn to laugh. “I'm not Egyptian,” she said. “Not as far as I know. But I'll happily be your queen.”
Every waking moment since Layth's surprise wedding had been like a dream, but not a shattered dream this time. No, the pieces had come together to form a dream as whole and shimmering as the sea. Layth felt a deep gratitude to Allāh for bringing him to this point. How did he deserve this blessing? What had Allāh seen in him to rescue him this way? Whatever it was, Layth would do his best to be worthy of God's gifts. To be worthy of Kadija too, and even of Hassan.
“How about you?” Layth asked. “Are you happy?” Surprisingly, even now that they were husband and wife, he feared Kadija's answer. He was afraid she would tell him that she'd made a mistake, or that she hadn't realized that Layth was so messed up, or… who knows.
Kadija leaned into him, her warm body contrasting with the cool breeze gusting off the ocean. “Happy like I've never been before,” she said. “Alhamdulillahi-rabbil-aalameen.”
For a guide to all of Wael's stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.