Jamilah rode hard, her muscles straining as she climbed up Post Street. She dumped her bicycle in the living room and stood, breathing heavily. Her eyes roamed the apartment. Not finding whatever distraction she sought, she grabbed a sofa cushion and threw it across the room. It struck a table lamp and knocked it over, but the lamp did not break. Unsatisfied, she took another cushion and flung it toward the small kitchen. The cushion hit a frying pan that hung from a nail and knocked it loose. The pan fell to the counter and then to the floor with a rewarding clang.
Jamilah collapsed onto the cushionless sofa. What about my deal, Allah? She realized that technically, Allah had kept His part of the deal. She had gotten her bike back, after all. But what about the spirit of the deal? Did God look for loopholes, like a lawyer? Wasn’t He above that?
Jamilah remembered Kadija explaining that we don’t make deals with Allah; that He needs nothing from us; and that the worship we perform is for ourselves. That was well and good but what about her job? Was she still going to stick to the deal? Was she going to pray and fast? Most of all, was she still going to wear this thing on her head?
Jamilah knew the answer to that. She had never backed down from anything in her life. She had made a promise to Allah and she would keep it. Not Adel nor anyone else would derail her from her chosen path.
She rose and went to the bathroom, where she turned on the sink and did wudu’ as Kadija had showed her. It wasn’t time for the prescribed prayer, but she prayed anyway. She put her hijab on, laid down the beautiful Dome of the Rock musalla that Kadija had given her, and went through the motions of the prayer, reciting Surat al-Fatiha when standing – it had come back to her after hearing Kadija say it a few times. She hadn’t yet learned what to say in the other parts of the prayer, but she spoke to Allah in her own words, asking Him to show her the way. Then she lay in her bed and slept.
Her phone rang. Jamilah woke up, feeling wool-headed and senseless, and answered it.
“Jamilah, it’s Nabeel,” the voice on the other end said.
“Nabeel?” Why was her brother calling? What time was it? In fact, what day was it?
“You need to come home right away. Mom’s sick. She’s at Saint Agnes in Fresno, in the cardiac center.”
Feeling as if she’d been shocked with a stun gun, Jamilah hung up the phone and went to the bathroom. She splashed water on her face, then checked the clock. It was 11:30 am. She had slept for three hours, but it felt like a week. She was not used to napping, and her limbs were heavy as lead. Her senses began to return and she felt panic. Her heart heart hammered as she threw a few things in a bag, including her prayer dress and musalla. She knew where Shamsi kept her spare cash – they shared such information in case of emergencies. Opening the bottom drawer of Shamsi’s dresser, she removed forty dollars from a sock, then wrote an explanatory note and taped it to the fridge.
A half hour later she was on the Amtrak shuttle bus, cruising along the Bay Bridge on her way to the Emeryville train station. She dug into her pocket for her phone, intending to call her brother for an update, and realized that in her grogginess and haste she had forgotten it.
Nabeel said that their mother had experienced a terrible headache, shortness of breath and chest pain. The doctors at Saint Agnes had found enzymes in her bloodstream that indicated a possible heart attack. Mom was conscious but very weak.
The train ride seemed to take forever. When she’d been hurriedly packing she had snatched a book off her nightstand and tossed it in her pack. It was a history of the Lebanese civil war. She found her bookmark and tried to read, but she found herself reading the same paragraph over and over again, remembering nothing. She gazed out the window, watching the Central Valley countryside flow by. Fields, wetlands, sheep, houses with junked cars in their backyards, little kids waving at the train from behind picket fences… scenes of agricultural wealth and personal poverty.
Why was this happening? Jamilah did not understand. She had made this deal with Allah, promising these important things – at least she thought they were important – and now everything was falling apart. Wasn’t faith supposed to make your life better? Didn’t Allah reward believers? Wasn’t He supposed to have your back?
She remembered a Christian poster she had once seen. It showed two sets of footprints in the sand on a beach. Then one set disappeared. A man says, “God, what happened? I thought You would be with me all the time. But when things got bad, Your footprints disappeared. Why did You abandon me?” And God replies, “That’s when I carried you.”
Wasn’t faith supposed to be like that? Instead Jamilah felt alone, cut off, and abandoned by everyone.
When she arrived in Fresno she thought about taking a cab, but she didn’t have enough money. And without her cell phone, she couldn’t remember her brother’s number. So she took the city bus.
Saint Agnes was across town from the Amtrak station, and the bus passed through bad neighborhoods. She was sure that the rough young men who boarded the bus would have hit on her the past. It had happened often enough. But they ignored her this time. Jamilah wondered if it was because of her hijab. People were treating her with deference, the way they would a nun.
Not everyone was so respectful, however. As she climbed off the bus a few blocks from the hospital, someone muttered, “Terrorist.” Jamilah did not look to see who had said it.
She walked up Herndon Avenue toward Saint Agnes. There was no sidewalk, so she walked in the dirt of an empty field. Traffic rushed by at high speeds, causing her scarf to flutter around her neck. By the time she arrived at the hospital it was almost sundown. Nabeel sat beside mom’s hospital bed, a neglected hand of solitaire spread out in front of him as he kept his eyes on their mother’s vital signs monitor. The room was half-lit and silent. Three vases of flowers stood vigil on the table, from family friends no doubt.
Mom was asleep. There was more gray in her hair than Jamilah remembered, and her age-spotted hands seemed frail. How can she have aged so much in a year? Jamilah thought. What have I done?
“Jamilah.” Her brother stood and embraced her. “I’m so happy you’re here.” His eyes became moist. “I’ve really missed you.”
Nabeel had been eight when their father passed away. Since then he’d become a mama’s boy. He had always looked up to Jamilah as well, trying to copy her in everything. So the current rift between Jamilah and her mother had been hard on him. He’d been paralyzed, not knowing what to do.
Nabeel filled her in, and Jamilah spoke to the attending nurse who came to check her mom’s IV. Her mother had been sedated to bring down her blood pressure. In the morning they would run a CAT scan to check for arterial blockage. Mom might awaken at any time. There was nothing to do but wait.
Nabeel noted Jamilah’s hijab, but did not seem terribly surprised. Probably thinks it’s just another radical experiment. Nabeel was a good young man, intelligent and kind, but not driven like Jamilah. He had always been fascinated by Jamilah’s messenger job. Whenever they spoke on the phone, he wanted to hear stories of rush jobs and near-death traffic experiences. Now, however, he was pensive. His eyes kept drifting to the life signs monitor.
Jamilah scooted her chair close to his and took his hand. “It’ll be alright,” she said. “No matter what happens, we’ll figure it out.”
Nabeel smiled, but the corners of his mouth barely lifted. He nodded his head a little too quickly.
The truth was that in spite of her words, Jamilah felt unmoored and clueless for the first time in years. She was trying to stay positive for Nabeel, but she wished there were someone she could turn to who would be stronger in turn than her. She had programmed Kadija’s number into her phone, but without her phone she didn’t know it. She had a sudden thought and dug her wallet out of her travel bag. There, in the zippered pocket of her wallet, was the small piece of paper Hassan had given her. She looked at it for a long time.
“What’s that?” Nabeel asked.
“A friend,” Jamilah said. “A good man, I think.”
Hassan answered on the first ring, and Jamilah felt suddenly shy or embarrassed. This wasn’t like her, and she tried to shake it off.
“Uhh.. As-salamu alaykum, Hassan,” she said.
“Jamilah?” She could hear the surprise in his voice, and she suddenly felt foolish for calling him. He had not given her his number, after all. She had picked it up off the street, literally.
“Never mind,” she said. “I called you by mistake. Go back to whatever you were doing.”
“No, no,” Hassan said. “I was just reading. You sound upset. What’s going on?”
Jamilah described the situation. She’d thought that maybe Hassan could give her some guidance, or some comforting words from the Quran. Instead he took her contact information and the address of the hospital, and told her he would be there that night.
“How?” Jamilah said, baffled.
“Don’t worry,” Hassan said. “I’ll work it out.”
“In that case, could you stop at my apartment and get my phone and some extra clothes?”
“Uhh, are you sure you want me going through your clothes? I’m not comfortable with that.”
“Oh, as if. My cousin Shamsi will have a bag ready for you.”
Saint Agnes was a Catholic hospital, and had a chapel on the second floor. Jamilah washed for prayer, then took the stairs to the chapel. It was empty. A cross hung on the wall, but Jamilah figured that Allah would understand her situation. She laid her musalla on the floor and prayed Maghreb and Isha’ together. As she prayed, she asked Allah to heal her mother. I cannot lose her like this, Yaa Allah. Not the way we left things. Give me a chance to make it better.
Was Allah hearing her? Everything had gone wrong since she had begun praying and wearing hijab. Why? Was Allah trying to tell her something? Was there something important that she was failing to grasp?
When she returned to the room, Nabeel had fallen asleep in his seat. Jamilah opened her book, but her thoughts kept going to Hassan. She was developing feelings for him, and it both excited and scared her. There was so much she didn’t know about him. He had too many secrets. But there was something so strong in him, so confident and yet kind. He reminds of my father, she realized. She could tell that Hassan needed to be loved. In spite of all his potency, he was wounded. He needed someone to believe in him. Jamilah imagined that any woman who could marry him and love him for who he was, would get something amazing in return.
Nabeel woke up and went down to the hospital cafeteria to get sandwiches. Jamilah sat in the hushed hospital room, reading her book, and sometimes glancing at her mother’s face. Time passed.
“As-salamu alaykum.” Jamilah looked up, and there was Hassan. He looked very different than he did at work. He wore blue jeans, a knee-length Arab-style shirt with buttons down the front, and a white and green kufi on his head. In one hand he carried a blue Adidas bag. With his broad shoulders and muscular physique, Hassan looked like an image from an Islamic fashion magazine.
“Wa alaykum as-salam,” she said. “How’d you get here so fast?”
“I have friends with cars. I got my hands on an Audi, and I put the pedal to the metal. How’s your mother?”
“She hasn’t been awake since I’ve been here. We’ll know more in the morning.”
“May Allah give her shifaa’. Here, your cousin gave me this.” He handed her the blue bag.
“Hassan, I really appreciate you coming. I’m sorry if it’s been any trouble. I’ve just been feeling so alone and confused.” A tear slipped from her eye and ran down her cheek, and she covered her face in embarrassment.
Hassan kneeled beside her. “It’s going to be okay, Jamilah. You’ll get through this, Insha’Allah. Allah says, ‘Inna ma’al ‘usri yusraa.’ With every difficulty comes ease. In fact yusraa is a dual form, so it’s saying that with every difficulty comes double relief.”
“I could u – use some double relief,” Jamilah said, her breath hitching as she tried to stifle her sobs. She wiped her tears. “I said almost the same words to my brother when I got here – it’s okay, we’ll get through this. But Hassan, all I’ve had since I made this deal with Allah are problems. I got fired, and now this.” She gestured toward her mom.
“Don’t be too sure about being fired,” Hassan said, “Adel will change his mind, I expect. And for your mom, just pray. Allah hears you. I know it might seem like He doesn’t. But He’s with you. Faith doesn’t make our problems disappear, you know? In fact, as your imaan increases, the tests increase, or they wouldn’t challenge you.”
“I don’t want to be challenged right now.”
Hassan nodded. “Yeah… I’m sure. But..” He shrugged. “That’s life. It’s how you learn who you are. The tests are not for Allah, they’re for us. We have to trust that Allah isn’t some random god up there in the heavens saying, ‘Let me see what I can throw at them today.’ He cares about us.”
“I thought faith was supposed to make things easier, not harder,” Jamilah said.
“I think it does make life better,” Hassan said, “It certainly made my life better. But it doesn’t make us rich, or beautiful, or take away all our problems, because Allah doesn’t value those things. Our predecessors, the Prophets and the Sahabah, they went through major hardships, but they persevered, right? That’s the key, I think. Faith gives us the means to cope, because we trust that Allah wants good for us, and we know that the road ends in Jannah – in Paradise.”
“Do you believe that?” Jamilah asked.
“What, you mean Jannah? Don’t you?”
“I subscribe to the belief,” Jamilah said. “Because it’s a part of my religion. But in my heart? I don’t know.”
Hassan was silent. He stood and stretched his arms, then walked to the door of the room. Then he turned back to Jamilah. “Can I tell you a story?” he said.
“My parents died when I was twelve, and – “
“Oh, Hassan! I didn’t know that.”
“It’s okay. What I wanted to say is that I remember the day we buried my father. I remember the bells, and the procession to the cemetery. There were a lot of people there. I remember people reciting poems, everyone chanting with one voice. And some of the mourners striking their own faces. People playing drums, flutes, cymbals. Two men drew swords and danced, shouting like they were at war. I had grown up here in the U.S. and it was all strange to me. Charlie – “ Hassan paused and looked down at the floor. He smoothed his kufi with his hand, then continued.
“My little brother. I could hear him crying, and a part of me was worried he’d have an asthma attack, but I couldn’t think about that. I was told to climb down into the grave to help lower my father’s body, so I did, along with three other men. The grave seemed so deep, and the gravel at the bottom was cold and damp. We held his casket and lowered it into the grave. At that moment everything disappeared -” Hassan made a motion as if wiping a window clean.
“Down in that hole, the world was silent. I remember that I bent down and picked up a handful of gravel. I was thinking of how alive my father had been just a few days before. And I thought, This is what it comes to. Everything that my father was, everything that he felt and hoped, everything that he would have been, was now just this dead body in a damp hole. All his secrets, his private dreams, all the details of his life that he had never shared, just gone. It made no sense at all.”
“Later, when I came to Islam, I realized that nothing is gone. All that my father was, all that he thought and dreamed, is alive with Allah. It exists. Not only that, it’s alive with my father, because his soul, his essence, is immortal. That feels so right to me. I can feel in my bones that it’s true. Whether Allah will forgive my father, whether he is destined for Paradise or Hell, I can’t say. That’s for Allah. But what I know is that the promise of Allah is true, and that this life” – he pointed to the floor – “is a single moment in this great journey that we’re on.”
Jamilah was silent for a while. “I believe that too, I suppose,” she said. “I never considered it in those terms, but if I think about my father, then yes, I believe that my father’s essence is alive. And I believe he’s in a good place. I appreciate you sharing that with me Hassan. Thank you.”
Hassan nodded and sucked on his lower lip. Jamilah wondered what he was thinking.
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Jamilah said.
Hassan pursed his lips. His jaw was set in a way that Jamilah had never seen before, and his eyes were chips of ice. It was a look of accumulated fury, as if Hassan had harbored an inner rage for so long that it had frozen into a glacier in his heart.
“He’s dead,” Hassan said. “Not long after my parents. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Jamilah was shocked – Hassan had lost so much – but she respected Hassan’s wishes. She watched as Hassan began compulsively manipulating his own hands in strange ways, twisting them outward, then folding them into toward his arms, then pulling the fingers out and down.
“What is that you do with your hands?” she asked.
“These are wrist stretches,” Hassan said. “In some of the martial arts I practice we do a lot of joint manipulation. We attack all the joints, but especially the wrists. So I run through these stretches every day, sometimes twenty or thirty times.”
As Hassan performed his exercises, Jamilah thought about her own father. He’d been a strong man, with a broad back and deep chest. At Madera’s annual Cinco de Mayo parade he would lift both children onto his shoulders at the same time, one on each shoulder. When he was feeling playful he would even lift their mother onto his shoulders as she squealed and protested in genuine outrage. That had always made Jamilah and Nabeel laugh uproariously. Jamilah had imagined her father could lift the world itself, like Atlas.
It had never occurred to her that her father would die one day, and certainly not so soon. But he’d been a heavy smoker all his life, and the cigarettes had poisoned him from the inside out. When he’d died so suddenly and so painfully, it had at first shaken Jamilah to the core. She withdrew into herself, neglecting her schoolwork and her friends. Finally one day her mother said, “Jamilah, I know you loved your father with all your heart. But you are your father’s daughter. You have his strength, I can see it. You have his drive and determination. If you want to make him proud, then stand up and be strong like him. Be everything that he was.”
That had done the trick.
How strange, Jamilah thought. I haven’t thought of that in years. I’d totally forgotten mom saying that to me. It was funny in a way, because Jamilah had indeed become a strong and proud girl, and had ended up at loggerheads with her mother over everything from the clothes she wore to her choice of major in college. She was ashamed to admit that she had thought her mother weak, in a way.
Something occurred to her. “Hey Hassan,” Jamilah said, “When you were describing your father’s funeral, that wasn’t a Muslim funeral, was it?” she said.
“No,” he said.
“So your parents weren’t Muslim? You said you came to Islam later. What religion were you?”
“Can I trust you to keep these things to yourself, Jamilah? I have reasons for wanting to keep my life private.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is, I mean you already told me – “
Hassan shook his head. “Never mind then. I didn’t mean to get into all this.” He stood and looked at Jamilah’s mother. “She’s still a beautiful woman ma-sha-Allah. I can see where you get your beauty.”
“Don’t try to change the subject,” Jamilah said. A part of her was pleased at Hassan’s compliment. She wondered if Hassan really thought she was beautiful, or was just being polite. I shouldn’t be thinking about such things. My mother could be dying.
“On the drive over here,” Hassan said, “I was thinking about your deal with Allah. You thought your deal was one thing – you give me this, I’ll give you that – but maybe Allah is telling you that it’s much more. We Muslims do have a bargain with Allah, but it’s a bigger bargain than I think you anticipated. It’s a covenant for our lives. We dedicate to Allah our souls, our hearts, our deeds, and He gives us Jannah. That’s the price of faith. We don’t pray and fast because Allah gives us some material thing we want. We do it because He gave us everything – food, water, breath… Life. Everything that we have comes from Him. So we worship because we’re grateful, right? Because we love Allah.”
Jamilah nodded slowly. “I see what you’re saying. You’re right. It’s more than I’ve been thinking about. It’s a little frightening to think in those terms.”
“Don’t be frightened,” Hassan said. “Allah is not your enemy.”
“What about tranquility?” Jamilah said.
“What do you mean?”
“You said that faith doesn’t bring material rewards. Okay, I accept that. But shouldn’t it at least bring inner peace?”
Hassan shrugged. “I think it does.”
“Then why are you so troubled? Why do you keep secrets? At times you seem tranquil – actually, you seem like a mountain sometimes, just silent and solid. But other times you seem like you’re about to crack in half.”
Hassan turned and walked to the doorway. “You have a brother, right? Where is he?”
Jamilah sighed. Trying to get Hassan to open up was like trying to trying to break down the Israeli apartheid wall with a pillow.
“That’s a good question. Nabeel went to the cafeteria ages ago. He’s probably trying to hit on a pretty nurse. Or maybe he went home for something, I don’t know. Hassan, I asked you a question. What’s with all the secrets?”
“Yes, I hear you…” He turned back and looked at her. “You know what I said about my father, about standing in the grave and thinking, ‘Is this what it comes to?’”
“There isn’t a day when I don’t remember that moment, and that thought. Some things are hard to shake, even when you know better. I… made mistakes when I was young, and I know that becoming Muslim wipes out everything that came before, but that doesn’t take away the shame, or the memories. It doesn’t make the past easier to live with. And I’m still living with the consequences. I don’t…” Hassan shook his head. “I don’t have a good relationship with the past.”
“ Didn’t you tell me that forgiveness is a big part of Islam?”
“ Doesn’t that include forgiving yourself?”
Hassan nodded his head slowly. “I just don’t know how,” he said.
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.