By Umm Zakiyyah
a short story
PART ONE | PART TWO
After the summer internship, Paula and I went our separate ways. We kept in touch, but we had our own lives to focus on. I went to college close to home to be near John, and Paula went to college in another state. When we talked, which was usually about once a month, Paula talked mostly about her burgeoning spirituality and all the different Islamic awareness activities Sommer was organizing. Though Sommer herself lived far from us both, Sommer was active nationally in several Muslim youth organizations and ran a pretty successful blog that focused on sexism amongst Muslims and the need for feminist interpretations of long-held patriarchal interpretations of the Qur'an and prophetic traditions.
Once Paula had even called to tell me that I absolutely had to turn on the TV “at this moment” because Sommer was being featured on a CNN special about Islam's alleged oppression of women. John was due any minute to pick me up and take me out to dinner, but I was curious enough to turn on the TV while I waited. John rang the doorbell while I was still watching and I asked if he could give me a minute, and he stood in the front room of my apartment watching snippets of the show himself as he waited for me.
“That's the girl who taught you about Islam?” John remarked after we were in the car.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling to myself as I buckled my seatbelt in the passenger seat. I was proud to have personally known someone who was so prominent.
“Good thing you only knew her for a few weeks.”
My eyebrows shot up as I regarded John. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “I don't know, Faith. She just sounds a little too opinionated for her own good.”
I smirked. “You know what Paula would call you now?”
He grinned knowingly. “A sexist?”
“And maybe a racist too.”
We both laughed.
“Why racist?” he said, humor still in his tone.
“Because it's obvious you think Arab-Pakistani girls don't have a right to their own minds.”
We chuckled, shaking our heads. It was a bitter joke because John was White, and he often said he felt reluctant to share his opinions about anything objectionable that a non-White did because he feared he would be labeled a racist.
“But I do agree with one thing she said.” John's tone was serious.
“What's that?” I asked, curious.
“That people who are gay and lesbian have a right to worship God like everyone else.”
I grew silent and looked out the passenger side window. The day I became Muslim Paula had asked Sommer if a gay person could be Muslim. When Sommer said yes (albeit reluctantly), Paula said, “That's all I wanted to know. Because I think I want to be Muslim too.” Then she became Muslim herself.
More than a year had passed since that conversation, and I couldn't get it out of my head. What did Paula mean by that? Did she consider herself gay? But that didn't make any sense. In high school, she'd had more boyfriends than most of the girls we knew. Was this because she was confused about her sexuality? Or maybe she was putting on a façade to hide who she really was.
“Yeah,” I agreed noncommittally, but I continued to stare out the window next to me. “We all sin. Nobody should be prevented from worshipping God just because their struggle is different from other people's.”
“I'm ready, Faith,” John said seconds later.
I turned to him, my forehead creased. “Ready for what?”
“To become Muslim.” He smiled flirtatiously then added, “And to marry you.”
I brought a hand to my mouth in surprise. “Are you serious?”
“If you are,” he said as he slowed to a stop behind a line of cars.
“Is this your idea of a proposal?” I teased. “Asking me to marry you at a stoplight?”
“It's more than an idea actually,” he said, smiling at me before turning his attention back to the road. “I want us to make it reality.”
John and I eloped a week later so that we could enjoy each other's company before making any official announcements of a formal wedding to our friends or family. Though I wanted to tell Paula, John convinced me that we should keep the decision to ourselves.
“What if she doesn't approve?” he asked one day as we lay awake in his apartment. “It would crush you, and I want the memories of this time to always be special for us.”
“I think she'll be happy for me,” I said, but I detected hesitance in my tone. Sommer had practically become a spiritual mentor to Paula, and though I wanted to believe that was a good thing, Paula's rants about male patriarchy in religion were increasingly more passionate than they were before she accepted Islam. I could only assume her views on early marriage (I was only nineteen and John twenty-one) did not mirror mine.
The mere possibility of hearing Paula criticize me for “dishonoring my womanhood” by giving myself to a man before I even had a college degree made my stomach churn in dread. John was right. We should keep this between ourselves for now. Besides, I was beside myself in happiness to be with John right then, and I didn't need anyone else's opinion, dissenting or otherwise, to make that feeling any more genuine.
“No it's not. No it's not!” My eyes fluttered open in the darkness, and I found John sleeping next to me, his breathing soft and rhythmic. My heart pounded with the same frustrated conviction that it had the first time I'd seen the dream. I sat up in bed, confusion and worry lingering where grogginess should have been.
The dream was unchanged. I had no idea what I was arguing about, and I didn't even know whom I was arguing with except that she was some girl with a faded red-heart tattoo on her lower back. I felt close and distant from myself at once, and the more I yelled, the farther the girl was out of my reach and the closer to myself I felt. There were black snakes and lizards coming toward the girl, but she didn't see them because she was so happy and content with whatever she was telling me. “No it's not!” I kept telling her in response, growing more desperate with each moment. And right before I woke up, I was in a green pasture alone, far from the girl, but I was losing my voice yelling at her though I knew she couldn't hear me.
“It means you're going to find the truth,” Sommer had said, interpreting the dream. “And after you find it, you're going to be tempted by yourself or someone you love to give up your faith, but you won't insha'Allah.”
Unable to sleep, I tossed aside the comforter, causing John to stir in his sleep. I went to the bathroom then washed my face. John and I were scheduled to have breakfast with my birth mother at nine o'clock the following morning, so I really needed to sleep.
Was I getting cold feet? Was that what this was about? I'd asked John to come with me because I thought it would make things easier. But now I wasn't so sure. I'd suggested to John that accompanying me might be the inspiration he needed to find his own birth parents. Like myself, John was adopted. But unlike myself, John didn't have the slightest inclination to find his real mother and father.
“What if they're drug addicts or something?” he'd often say.
“So what if they are?” I'd retort.
“It's different for African-American families,” he'd said once. “You all have closer bonds with your parents.”
“What? That's not true.” I don't know why, but I was deeply hurt by that comment. I guess in a way I felt that this was John's pathetic attempt to avoid facing his past. Unlike my own experience as the brown child of two White parents, John's outings with his adopted parents never incited questions or suspicions as to who his “real” parents were. Like my own adopted parents, John's were White, as was John, so people naturally assumed that John was their biological son. Apparently, other than close family and John himself, they'd never told anyone that John was adopted, and I sensed that in a bizarre case of wishful thinking, John believed that if he kept quiet about his true background, it would disappear. He didn't even want to accompany me when I met my birth mother for the first time. I suppose even that was cutting too close to home for him.
After leaving the bathroom, I felt a sudden need to read the Qur'an before trying to go back to sleep. I was still a bit unsettled by the dream, mainly because I could find no reason for having seen it a second time. I'd already found the truth. I was Muslim now, so what was I supposed to get from the dream this time around? Would my birth mother oppose my decision to be Muslim? But how would she find out in the first place? I didn't wear hijab, and I certainly didn't plan on telling her about my conversion, at least not during our first meeting.
I removed a copy of the Qur'an from a bookshelf in our bedroom, and I carried it to the kitchen, where I decided to put some water on for tea while I read.
“We have explained in detail in this Qur'an, for the benefit of mankind, every kind of similitude. But man is, in most things, contentious.”
This is the verse that would stay with me as I drifted to sleep the night before I would meet my birth mother.
A Life Changed Forever
The door to my apartment bathroom banged against the sink counter as I rushed inside. I dropped to my knees in front of the toilet and hung my head over the bowl as my stomach heaved and the contents of my breakfast exploded from my mouth. I clutched the porcelain seat as I vomited twice more and gagged on the bile burning the back of my throat. I spit into the commode one last time before reaching up to flush the toilet. I collapsed onto the tiled floor with my back against the porcelain bowl as the rush of water sucked the putrid contents down the pipes even as the stench of vomit lingered in the air.
I covered my face with my hands and my shoulders shook as I moaned and tears spilled from my eyes.
“I'm coming right now,” Paula said when I called her minutes later. I didn't want to tell her what had happened because, technically, my marriage to John was still a secret. But I really didn't know who else to turn to. After John, she was the only person I considered a good friend. I wanted to talk to my mother (my adopted mother) but I hadn't even told her I was Muslim or that I had found my birth mother—or that I'd run off and married John without her knowledge. And I knew now wasn't the time to divulge this, especially after what had happened at breakfast.
It was late at night when Paula stepped inside my apartment and found me sitting in the dark living room, staring off into space with my legs folded pretzel-style in front of me on the couch.
“You left your door open,” she said, playfully scolding me as she closed the front door and locked it. A second later light flooded the room.
I managed a tightlipped smile, but I didn't look in her direction. She put her arms around me and pulled me into an embrace, and I laid my head on her shoulder. The tears welled in my eyes again, but I blinked to keep myself from breaking down again.
We sat like that for some time in silence before she asked, “Faith, are you sure? Maybe there's some mistake…”
I drew in a deep breath and exhaled. I'd said the same thing over and over to myself the whole day, and I didn't even want to imagine what John was telling himself. I'd rushed out of the restaurant without him and took a taxi alone to my apartment. I still had a couple months left on the lease before I was supposed to move out and live with John full time.
“He recognized her too, Paula,” I said, dejected, my voice scratchy as I spoke into the cloth of her shirt.
“But he was a baby when he was adopted. How could he even remember?”
I shook my head, but that felt like too much effort. I sat up and Paula released me so I could look at her while I spoke. “I was eighteen months, and John was almost four.”
Paula averted her gaze. “But he's…”
“We have different fathers,” I said, already knowing what Paula was thinking.
I groaned aloud. “Why is this happening?” I blurted, a surge of anger overtaking me. “I love him.”
“But he's your brother, Faith,” Paula said softly.
As if I didn't know that! I wanted to slap her right then.
Paula drew in a deep breath and exhaled, the sound painfully empathetic. “Maybe this is a test from Allah. I know it must be hard, but—”
“Hard?” I glared at her. “No, Paula. Getting through high school was hard. Learning how to pray was hard. Saving myself for marriage was hard.” I shook my head and stood up, my arms folded over my chest as I struggled to keep my composure. “This isn't hard, Paula. This is…” My mind frantically searched for the term that could aptly explain my fury. “…f—ed up!”
I usually didn't use profanity, but right then I really didn't care. No words, not even profane ones, seemed heart-wrenching enough to accurately describe what I felt right then.
“Why would God even let this happen? Why did He make me and John fall in love?” I said, angry gasps between my questions. “He could've stopped us. He knew we weren't allowed to be together.”
I clinched my jaws and balled up my fists. “This is so unfair,” I said, speaking under my breath. “This is so f—ing unfair.”
“No it's not,” Paula said softly, but she wasn't looking at me. She was looking at her hands. I could tell she hated being in this position. She didn't want to be the one to tell me I couldn't be with the only man I loved. She didn't want to be the one to tell me there was no way for me and John to remain married. She didn't want to tell me that I'd saved myself, prizing my chastity and virginity all throughout my youth, only to give my heart and body to someone I was never allowed to be with in the first place.
“It is unfair,” I said, raising my voice as I glared at her.
“No it's not,” she said, raising her voice as she met my gaze. Her eyes filled with tears as her jaw trembled in tortuous compassion for me. She wanted to take away my pain, but she couldn't. I looked away.
“It's a test from Allah,” I heard her say, but I couldn't look at her. Tears filled my own eyes as her words pierced my heart. I knew she was right. But I didn't want her to be. “You're being tempted to give up your faith,” she said.
At that, I jerked my head around to meet her gaze and found that she and I were thinking the same thing. She apologized with her eyes, but I sensed she felt that, for my own good, I needed to hear what I already knew.
“It's like what Sommer said about your dream.”
“Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, 'We believe'
And that they will not be tested?”
John and I eventually annulled our marriage, and we mutually agreed to go our separate ways and avoid communication with each other except online via Facebook and Twitter. But we kept even that to a minimum. A year after the annulment, John left America to study Arabic and Islamic studies in the Middle East, but I remained where I was.
Paula and I grew closer as friends, and as she had the day I'd called her distressed, she periodically drove six hours to our hometown to visit me. She eventually opened up to me about her own personal and spiritual struggles and admitted that she was in fact attracted to women, not men. But in high school, she'd tried to fight it.
“I thought I just needed to meet the right guy,” she said. “But it turns out there was no right guy.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked her one day as we spoke on the phone. I wondered if Sommer knew, but I didn't feel comfortable asking.
“I'm hoping for a miracle,” she said jokingly. But I detected a sense of resentment in her voice. “Maybe I'll start a convent for Muslim nuns. You know, vowing celibacy for the sake of Allah and all that.”
We both laughed.
“I'll make du'a for you,” I said more seriously, letting her know I would pray for her. “I know it must be hard.”
“In a way,” she said, her voice somber, “you and I are the same.”
I grunted laughter. “I guess so.”
But I didn't want to think about John. Even now, three years later, he still had a hold on my heart. I'd tried to talk to other Muslim men for marriage, but nothing ever worked out. There were times that my heart and mind would search frantically for a way for me and John to be together. I searched fatwa after fatwa, asked scholar after scholar, and read all the Islamic material I could in hopes of finding something, anything, to justify me and John getting remarried. I'd even found a couple of religious loopholes that seemed plausible justifications for arguing that, technically-speaking, John and I were not officially brother and sister—by law or Islam. And since our mother never married my father or John's father, weren't John and I technically “illegitimate children” who were not mahram (legal relatives) for each other?
“Be careful,” Paula told me one day after I explained to her what I'd learned. “You don't want to do like that story in the Qur'an where the people were forbidden to fish on Saturday, but they put out the net on Friday so they could collect their fish on Sunday.”
I sighed in agreement, but my heart fell in defeat. I missed John so much that my heart literally hurt for him. Why couldn't I just move on?
“But there are so many different interpretations of things,” I said, desperate for any justification for what I wanted. “Maybe the laws forbidding mahram's from marrying don't apply to illegitimate children.”
Paula laughed, but I could tell she wasn't trying to be mean. “Oh please, don't go there,” she said. “You start doing that reinterpreting thing, and you might interpret yourself right out of the religion.”
“Maybe you're right,” I muttered.
I hugged my knees and concentrated my attention on the parking lot beyond my apartment window. It was all I could do to steady my trembling and think of something besides the torn envelope and embossed card next to me on the crumpled sheet of my bed.
I was upset. I knew that much. But there was something deeper knifing at my heart.
Your attendance is requested at the wedding celebration of Paula Smith and Sommer Khan.
I gritted my teeth as I glanced at the folded ivory-colored card. On the front of the card was a faded red heart, and beneath the heart was the calligraphic quote, “It's about love.”
No it's not, I protested in my mind. No it's not.
Part of me wanted to pick up the phone and confront her. I'd seen the link on her Twitter page to the article by Sommer entitled “It's About Love” that defended the rights of gays and lesbians to fully participate in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faith traditions. But I'd thought nothing of it. Same-sex marriage was discussed in the article, but I would have never imagined that Sommer was implying that our “faith tradition” should treat these unions as Islamically acceptable.
“It's about love,” Sommer kept repeating throughout the article.
“No it's not,” I said aloud as I snatched up the invitation card from my bed and ripped it in half right through the faded red heart.
It's about Allah, I thought to myself, reflecting on the tremendous lesson I learned from my own struggles. And it's about whether or not you'll accept Allah's invitation to choose Him over your desires.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy. Her latest novel Muslim Girl is now available.
To learn more about the author, visit ummzakiyyah.com or subscribe to her YouTube channel.
Copyright © 2014 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
WRITTEN FOR MUSLIMMATTERS.ORG
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