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The Revert

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The bus had come to a stop to let some more people on.  Natasha was jolted from her thoughts when she felt someone pat her on the shoulder.

Assalamu alaykum,” said a girl, her scarf draped in a way that hung past her elbows.  “Do you mind if I sit next to you?”

“Sure.”  Natasha shifted in her seat to give her some room.  The guy who came on with her ignored them and made his way further down the bus.

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“Are you going to Friday prayer?” she asked.  Natasha nodded her head in response.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around before, is this your first time going?”

Natasha cleared her throat to answer, “Yes.”

“My name is Kiran,” holding out her hand for Natasha to shake, “Let me know if you ever need anything.”

Natasha turned her face to look at the girl head on.  Her eyes seemed magnified behind her glasses, intensifying her matronly appearance.  Natasha hesitated before she introduced herself, “I’m Natasha.”  She made to shake Kiran’s hand, but Kiran bypassed the handshake and threw her arms around Natasha in an embrace.

“I knew it,” Kiran exclaimed in a voice muffled by the awkward angle she had latched onto Natasha in the cramped space of the bus.

Natasha was taken aback by this sudden burst of affection.  “You knew what?” asked a stock-still Natasha, her neck craned away from Kiran as far as it would go.

“I knew you were a convert!” Kiran pulled out of the hug, grabbing both of Natasha’s hands.  She could not help but stare at Kiran’s face, dumbstruck.  Nearly everyone thought she was white.  But apparently, even Kiran – a Muslim – couldn’t tell that her family had a Muslim background.  Kiran continued bumbling on excitedly before Natasha could speak.  “It’s a huge blessing to meet a convert, and it’s an even greater blessing to hug one,” Kiran squealed,  “Hugging a convert expiates your sins.”

Natasha squirmed her hands out of Kiran’s grasp.  “Do you really believe that?” she asked before she could stop herself or sap the disdain from her voice.

“I mean…I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard plenty of people say it before,” replied Kiran, looking slightly embarrassed.  Kiran sat quietly for a few minutes, feigning interest in the fields they drove past and stealing occasional looks in Natasha’s direction.  Natasha could tell that she was searching for another topic to talk about.

“Oh -” Kiran breathed quietly, suddenly jumping to life again.  She began making sweeping gestures across her forehead at Natasha, who did not understand what was going on.

“Natasha,” Kiran blurted out, “I was just trying to let you know that your -” and for the next word, Kiran leaned in to whisper into the spot she must have sensed Natasha’s ear was, “hair -” and withdrew again to her normal body position and tone of voice, “is showing; in the front.”  Natasha’s hand instinctively shot up to her head, but Kiran swatted Natasha’s hand away and pushed the hair back with her own hand underneath the scarf. “Next time, try to keep your bangs back by using a clip, alright? You don’t want to, you know, be a source of temptation,” she went back to using her dramatic whisper.

Natasha reached for her compact and checked her reflection. Her bangs were hidden, but Kiran had crossed the line by shoving her hand into Natasha’s scarf. She scooted as close to the wall of the bus as she could, squeezing herself away from Kiran.

“But it’s okay for that to happen right now, Natasha, you’re just a convert,” Kiran said, a slight sneer in her voice.

“What did you just say?”  Natasha asked, snapping the compact shut and pushing the slowly rising anger back down her throat.

“What I mean is that you’re still new at this whole…Islam thing. Everyone understands that you are different and won’t be perfect at first.” Natasha sat quietly with her arms folded across her chest.

“So it’s okay for a convert’s hair to accidentally show, but not a, what, a – real Muslim’s – hair to show?” Natasha said, exasperated.

Kiran looked flustered and began stuttering, “We expect for a Muslim to know better, and act accordingly. A Muslim is judged at a higher standard, that’s all I’m saying.”

With that, Natasha had made up her mind to not allow the conversation to carry on any further. What Kiran had said was exactly the kind of mentality that Natasha’s father used to speak about. It was getting this bad already, and they hadn’t even reached the chapel yet. She couldn’t imagine how much worse the others she’d meet there would be. Natasha turned her face and stared out of the window, wishing that she had never decided to go to Friday prayer.

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Meena is a writer, podcaster, high school English teacher, wife, and new mom. She loves working with Muslim youth and is interested in literature, arts, and culture. She studied Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine and has a Master’s in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She briefly dabbled in Classical Arabic studies in the US and is also studying the Asharah Qira'aat/10 Recitations. Check out her podcast and website Brown Teacher Reads: the brown literature circle you always wanted to be in. (brownteacherreads.com)

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. asmaa aliu

    January 27, 2014 at 6:13 AM

    thee revert is a lovely write up and hoghly eductional,infact soul inspiring. jazak Allahu khyran sister a d beautiful piece. pls wen wil u post d concludin part of the story the revert, lukin 4ward to it,in shaa Allahu

    • Meena Malik

      January 27, 2014 at 7:48 PM

      Nope, this is it! Even I don’t know what happens to Natasha after this point in the story. It is very unlikely for me to carry on her story. But I am considering writing a story with Zahid that revisits his life 5-6 years after he graduates.

      • asmaa

        January 28, 2014 at 4:11 AM

        Ok,wil luk 4wward 2 readin it,in shaa Allah,pls a favour Sis Meena,can u pls help post it 2 my email(asmaaaliu@gmail.com) dnt normaly go onlin,but av acess 2 my email,jazak Allahu khyran,may Allah increase ur iman,barakallahu feeh sis

  2. Humaira Khan

    January 27, 2014 at 12:12 PM

    Very nice. I hope there’s more.

  3. S Kari

    January 27, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    i find the characters a bit flat – especially Kiran. very cliched and her words are a bit over the top….i think there would be more nuance a lot of the time. she comes across at the beginning as a totally cartooonish character (even physically with her matron look and big glasses)…a bit unfair..

    *Name has been changed to comply to our Comments Policy*

    • Meena Malik

      January 27, 2014 at 8:04 PM

      I believe that all of the characters are nuanced and have depth to them besides Kiran (and other minor characters like Natasha’s father, Mark, etc.). I had to make a very conscious decision when it came to Kiran. She started out as someone very different than who she is in this final draft, and she morphed a bit in my multiple revisions. I intentionally chose to make her the way she is, and maybe she seems like she’s almost a caricature (I agree), but that’s the person she is in this story because I think the story demands that of her. This comment about Kiran is one that I had heard from my writing teacher as well, and I chose to push Kiran even closer to a caricature from the draft that he gave me feedback on, essentially turning Kiran’s character into a bit of a satire.

      We stay in a third person close to Natasha throughout the story, so there is the added possibility of Natasha’s perception impacting the way she understands what’s happening. But at the same time, some people ARE that one-dimensional and weird. (And actually, I think she is quite complex in her one-dimensionality). In a fiction story, I’d hope that we can make room for characters who are one-dimensional.

      If some readers want to take this fictitious story and carry it over to the real world (which I think is dangerous to do)–I have actually met MANY people who come off to me exactly as Kiran does to Natasha, whether they are well-intentioned or completely unaware of their behavior. I was nervous to make Kiran like this, since she is a representative of the MSA/Muslim community in the story, and I thought that people might be offended. But I believe that readers (especially Muslim readers) know that different communities hold all different kinds of Muslims. And sometimes there are Kirans out there (and maybe we should consider having them not be the first people that new members of the community interact with.)

      I hope that addressed your concern!

  4. Susan Valentino

    January 28, 2014 at 1:04 AM

    Aa, sister. I’m from OC also. I am a revert. Islam found me later in my life. I very much enjoyed reading your work. I look forward to reading more. I think you have a wonderful talent for creating rich prose. jazak allahu feeki.

    • Meena Malik

      January 29, 2014 at 12:22 PM

      W/asa

      Neat! If you ever see me around, please do say salaam in person. May Allah bless and continue to guide you!

    • salmirah

      February 9, 2014 at 7:43 AM

      Susan mind sharing your story? How did it all happen? What made you revert to Islam? :) I love reading reverts stories, people finally finding the right path.

  5. Wael

    January 28, 2014 at 1:54 AM

    As-salamu alaykum. It’s an interesting read, and you did a phenomenal job conveying Natasha’s sense of anxiety and isolation, as well as the insensitivity and condescending attitudes of some “born” Muslims.

    However, I don’t see the benefit in portraying every single Muslim in the story in such a negative light. None of them, from Natasha’s parents to the sister on the bus, to Zahid, to the women in the mosque, has a single redeeming characteristic, and frankly that does not ring true to life. This is a story I would expect from someone who was trying to discourage people from every visiting a mosque or learning about Islam. It comes across as anti-Islamic propaganda.

    I would have hoped that Natasha would go on to find a more welcoming Muslim community somewhere else, or to meet a few sincere individuals who do not judge her. Instead, the sense of relief or longing that the character seems to feel at the end, when she gazes at the crucified image of Jesus, would seem to indicate a pro-Christian message to the story, which is rather odd considering this is MuslimMatters.

    • Umm Shaharazed

      January 28, 2014 at 3:18 PM

      Agreed! I was also offended by every single Muslim character not having essentially any good qualities. A more realistic story would show that although people have flaws, there should be at least one redeeming characteristic. This story reads like it was written by a Christian Fundamentalist or Muslim hater. Everything is very one-dimensional. This was actually very poorly written, sorry to say.

      • ZAI

        January 28, 2014 at 5:20 PM

        Br. & Sr…
        It is a work of fiction, and good fiction uses literary devices
        like hyperbole to provoke thought and discussion. The intent
        here is to make Muslims think about the way we present our faith
        to both non-Muslims or Muslims who are not practicing. Whether we
        show it to be a merciful and accepting faith or something harsh and
        ceaselessly judgemental….and what that results in.

        If it had a sunny, happy good ending THEN
        it would BE a piece of feel-good MUSLIM propaganda. It wouldn’t provoke
        any thought because we’d think “all is well”. Fictional story loses it’s
        purpose when constraints are applied. Those constraints ARE the propaganda.

        Secondly…please keep in mind that positive interactions w/ Muslims
        and many good Muslims out there, while a reality, are not EVERYONE’S
        reality. There ARE many people who’ve had bad interactions with Muslims
        from their families to others…and that’s NOT one-dimensional…it’s also reality
        for many. It is negating, trivializing or dismissing those feelings to describe them
        as one-dimensional and unrealistic…the very thing the story is trying to point out.
        We must not live in bubbles. Ask a non-practicing Muslim how they feel around
        the more observant. Many of them will tell you their interactions are bad precisely
        because they feel judged.

        Finally, keep in mind the story mentions one memory and goes on to
        mention a brief period of time in one day….all involving one person. It is
        hardly a story entitled “Muslims in New York” or similar.

  6. rabia

    January 28, 2014 at 2:44 AM

    Salaam – I found this story to be really interesting until the end?! I don’t get it lol what just happened – why is she saying wouldn’t it be easier? I hope someone can shed some light and it would be better to continue this story – sounds like it would make a good novel!

    • ZAI

      January 28, 2014 at 5:26 PM

      I think the allusion goes back to a statement the mother made at the beginning
      of the story where she indicates church is easier than mosque…or Christianity is
      easier than Islam, because it’s about heart & faith…not deeds. Ergo, easier or more
      forgiving. The girls experiences during the day and her seeing the crucifix in the interfaith
      space remind her of that & the question left in the air is whether she decides to become
      a Christian and leave Islam altogether. That’s what I got out of it. Could be wrong.

    • Meena Malik

      January 29, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      W/asa

      This story explores different ideas of forgiveness and how they manifest themselves in God and in communities. She does not want to be Christian at the end. She is turning to God because of her guilt from the past, something that I believe is a positive in her life because our guilt from sins is what reminds us of God and our relationship with Him. Her mother remarks about the ease of getting forgiveness in the Church. Natasha wants something that easy to finally put her heart to rest so that she can start over, and who is to say that Islam does not offer a forgiveness that easy? When a person who has made many mistakes sincerely turns to God, don’t we believe that Allah will forgive them as long as he is sincere?

      But forgiveness is much more complex than that, because people in communities choose to step into Allah’s territory when it comes to judging people for their past. If Natasha starts practicing Islam, there is no way she can isolate herself from the community. When she is in the empty church hall, it’s like a ghost of a community is there in the empty pews. She wants forgiveness from Allah, but the community needs to be open-minded and open-hearted enough to accept her as well. Because of GOD can accept a person despite their past, why can’t PEOPLE accept a person despite their past?

      • ZAI

        January 30, 2014 at 12:06 AM

        “Because of GOD can accept a person despite their past, why can’t PEOPLE accept a person despite their past?”

        That’s a good question and I think God provides the solution when he speaks about
        drawing a veil over sins in the Qur’an. In his wisdom, he knows his creation and he knows
        we are not as forgiving as he is, therefore it is better to keep one’s sins to oneself. There is unfortunately a fire-and-brimstone contingent among Muslims that’s growing and therefore that advice is probably more useful now than ever.

        My apologies for misreading the end. I have seen that be a real temptation in actual life though. I know Muslims who have left Islam because of what they see as it’s harsh nature, as advertised by the aforementioned contingent…and gone the route of Christianity or even agnosticism/atheism because they feel it provides them with a comfort that Islam as practiced and preached by many Muslims no longer does. It is a sad situation that people are being chased out of this faith by some of the zealous self-righteous types.

  7. Wael Abdelgawad

    January 28, 2014 at 8:16 PM

    Keep on writing. I think the theme or message of the story needs work, and the Muslim characters are one-sided, but you do have writing talent and you clearly have something to say. Keep it up.

  8. Amel

    January 29, 2014 at 12:07 AM

    As-salamu Alaykum,
    This is an interesting conversation. A while back, I was involved in gathering and analyzing data for a survey that tried to determine the factors that lead people to convert to Islam. Overwhelmingly, people said that coming into contact with kind Muslims was a major factor. Indeed, I found this to be my own experience as I was very blessed to meet a number of outstanding Muslims prior to my conversion to Islam. After conversion as well, I felt drowned in the kindness and warmth of the people I met at the mosque and elsewhere.

    Over time, though, I have seen that not everyone has this same experience, and going to the mosque can be frightening and even traumatic for people if they feel they are not welcome for any reason. In some ways, this is a matter of perception. If you go into a situation assuming people are hostile or judging you, then every move they make will seem to confirm this feeling. If you sit by yourself and do not initiate conversation with others, then it is not a given that others will make the first move and approach you. If you do not have high expectations, however, then your experience is likely to be more neutral. And if you go into such situations feeling happy, positive, and assuming the best of others, then your experience will probably be a good one.

    Having said that, I see this story as a wake-up call to Muslims. People who are new to Islam are usually going through major transformations in their lives. Many do not have the support of family members and want to build new friendships with people who understand and accept them. Many need a mentor, someone to take them under their wing and basically take care of them for a while until they find their place in the community. We should constantly be on the look-out for such people and make sure that they have this support. There are a lot of new Muslims out there who are doing everything on their own, and it can get lonely.

    The character in this story had bad experiences as a child that were influenced by the way she was brought up. Her father had some type of hostility towards the community and was not a model Muslim himself, so it is not far-fetched that his daughter would be extremely wary. I do not see the ending as promoting Christianity; rather it shows us that converts are vulnerable and we need to be more aware of that as a community.

    • Wael

      January 29, 2014 at 1:29 AM

      Yes, I see the point that you and Zai are making, and I’m not suggesting that it needs to be a feel-good story. But a wake-up call, to be an effective wake-up call, must reflect reality, even if it reflects the worst possible reality. Here we have a mean-spirited, angry father; a bizarre funeral in which women are shrieking inside a mosque; a mother who detests Islamic religious rituals; a sister (Kiran) who manages to be silly and condescending at the same time; an unattractive masjid; a hostile congregation; and a hypocritical, pot-smoking young Imam whose hair is described as being black as the pits of Hell.

      It’s too much. The story comes off as a criticism of Islam and the Muslim people as a whole. I assume that wasn’t the intention. Or perhaps it was, I don’t know.

      • Meena Malik

        January 29, 2014 at 12:20 PM

        Br. Wael–you are more than allowed to hate this story. Whatever you see as flaws in this, please take note of them and I encourage you to write your own fiction while keeping the issues you see in my story in the back of your mind. I will no longer read your comments, as I no longer find your criticism to be constructive. This is a fiction story. I created this story to address an issue I thought was important. It is not meant to be creative nonfiction.

        I encourage each and every reader of this story to write their own story, about ANYTHING, and have it published somewhere. We need more Muslims in the arts, and a group of people are “here to stay” once they produce their own cultural/artistic projects.

        And please read “The Peeler” by Flannery O’Connor. That story was one of the last stories I read right before I wrote the first draft of this story, maybe it will give you some insight.

    • Meena Malik

      January 29, 2014 at 12:14 PM

      W/asa

      That is very interesting research. I think you’ve done a great close-reading of the story and approached it while giving it a fair chance to let the story unfold. You hit the nail on the head–Natasha is traumatized from her childhood (and I have placed certain clues hinting at the corruption of the (invented) Islamic sect they follow), her father is a horrible role model, AND she goes into the whole situation feeling like everyone is going to judge her (note: she keeps pushing her bangs into her hijab and doesn’t want to be banned for her hair showing; she also generally cares about what other people think). Your reading of the ending is also what I was going for. The story is NOT promoting Christianity. Natasha’s main struggle and thing that keeps nagging at her is her want to be forgiven for her sins. Ideas of “blanket forgiveness” come in with Christianity (and even for converts that are Muslim!) are at battle with “earned forgiveness.” How different communities view sin is also at play–whereas Christians come out and say “we’re all sinners and that’s why we need Jesus,” Muslims don’t parade around the idea that they sin in the same way. Natasha’s guilt is a driving force for her actions to reconcile herself with God.

      One of my main messages while writing this story was to explore the idea of convert vs. revert as defined by Natasha. What happens when you have a fresh convert in a community; and what happens when you have someone who is non-practicing for whatever reason (like Natasha: her parents didn’t teach her any better, she has had bad past experiences with Islam) wanting to explore Islam. If two people had the same past, but one had a Muslim background and one was a convert from a different religion, how would they be treated by the Muslim community once they want to learn about Islam or grow in their faith? Natasha deserves the same forgiveness and empathy from the community, if not more, than anyone else who would come in wanting to have a fresh start.

  9. Koshur_Muslim

    January 29, 2014 at 4:17 AM

    My comment may sound trivial, but why we do have to call Muslim converts, “reverts”?It doesn’t make any sense, to me a “revert”, would be a “born-again-Muslim”, somebody that was raised Muslim, left the religion latter and then reverted back to Islam, on the other hand a convert is somebody that was raised non-Muslim and then converted to Islam, the two are different and in my opinion calling a convert a “revert” is actually self-righteous and arrogant, it puts off non-Muslims because it implies that they were all born Muslim and Islam is the only right religion(as Muslims we do believe that, but we shouldn’t go around shoving that fact into the faces of non-Muslims), it makes us look bigoted and self-righteous.

    So for the sake of simplicity and political correctness, a convert and revert are two different people.

    • Meena Malik

      January 29, 2014 at 12:28 PM

      That is a source of confusion for Natasha as well. She also feels that if everyone believes she is a “convert” (since Kiran assumes she is white) will be treated differently than if everyone knew her parents/grandparents were Muslim.

      I wanted to ask the question with this story, it is something I have discussed with other students in my MSA: If Bob used to smoke pot and has been sexually active since he was 16, how would he be treated if he wanted to seek a connection to Islam? If Mohammad used to smoke pot and has been sexually active since he was 16, how would HE be treated if he wanted to seek a connection to Islam?

      In my personal experience and with many other people I know, I have seen that people like “Mohammad” or Natasha, who deserve as much empathy and kindness as “Bob” or “Sally,” are demeaned for their past and it is held against them because “they should have known better as Muslims.” There is a duplicity and double standard that I don’t think should exist.

      • buland iqbal

        January 30, 2014 at 10:33 AM

        Great Story…thanks for shedding light on character like Natasha..some of us get derailed from the right path and when we realize the damage is done..Stories like these help us to reflect and ponder..JazakAllah

  10. salmirah

    February 9, 2014 at 7:47 AM

    Meena darling, your writing is really good. Apart from my piles of work, I love reading inspirational writing, so started following you on wordpress. :) Allahu Akbar!

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