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Latifah held her hands high in the air to block Kendrick’s shot. Her knee-length gym shirt that her mother had made was tied in a thick knot at her waist. The loose fabric of the matching gym pants slightly hugged her hips, and sweat beaded at her hair line that was exposed because her scarf had slipped back during the game.
The physical education teacher used to ask Latifah to stay on the other side of the gymnasium where the girls were playing, but Kendrick would always wear the teacher down with his charismatic reasoning.
“We’re not hurting anybody,” he’d say, a pleading grin on his face.
“Fine,” the teacher would say after going back and forth for several minutes. “But only after you both finish the workout I assigned.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Bradford. God loves you.”
“Oh shut up, Kendrick,” the teacher would say playfully, shaking her head and grinning as she made her way back to the bleachers to watch the co-ed class, a whistle dangling from a cloth string around her neck.
“You look good today,” Kendrick whispered to Latifah, his hands still poised in the air as he watched the ball swoosh through the net.
Latifah giggled as she went to retrieve it. “You say that every day,” she called out as she caught the bouncing ball.
Kendrick’s smirk spread as he jogged to where Latifah was dribbling the ball, her knees bent in preparation to shoot. He stood in front of her and spread his arms wide, taunting her with his eyes.
“You ain’t going to make it,” he teased.
She faked to the left then shot the ball to the right, his hand falling shy of blocking the ball.
Latifah watched anxiously as the ball hit the rim and rolled around it. A second later, it fell into the basket, yanking the netting back and forth before it bounced to the ground.
The sound of whistle a blowing halted Kendrick’s steps to retrieve the ball.
“Man.” He grunted as he turned to look at Mrs. Bradford near the bleachers. He playfully contorted his face, his arms stretched out, as if saying, What’s up with that?
Latifah bent down to pick up the ball. As she stood holding it, she felt a strong arm wrap around her waist. “Woe…” she said, laughing as she was suspended in the air before Kendrick set her back down. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Sorry,” he said as they fell in step with the rest of the students heading toward the bleachers near the exit doors. “I just wanted to pick you up in class since I can’t pick you up tonight.”
Latifah rolled her eyes, a grin lingering on her face. “I told you I’m not allowed to date.”
“Yes you did. But I ain’t going to give up on you. You make my heart throb.” He winked at her, and she shook her head, laughing.
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Nuh uh.” He shook his head and eyed Latifah approvingly. “Because none of them look like you.”
“All right you two,” Mrs. Bradford said, her eyes smiling as she raised a hand above her head to let the class know she wanted their attention. “Quiet.”
As Mrs. Bradford talked to the class about a winter sports day, Latifah stood next to Kendrick, her face warm in flattery, unable to process anything the teacher was saying. Kendrick grasped Latifah’s hand and squeezed it, as if saying he wanted her to stay right where she was—by his side. Latifah was too shy to grip his hand in return, but she didn’t ask him to let go. Because she didn’t want him to.
Rafiqah stood as if in a trance in front of the entrance to the high school gymnasium. She could not rip her eyes away from the double doors that were affixed with glass windows that were transparent from the outside but reflective mirrors from inside.
Rafiqah heard the deep voice of Mr. Butt, who stood feet behind her, his head bowed sadly and his arms folded as he waited for her to finish. But she didn’t move. A numbness paralyzed her arms and legs.
“Mrs. Bilal?” This time the voice came from next to her, and in her peripheral vision, she could see Mr. Butt glance through the glass then frown. “I have a class now. We’ll need to go.”
Rafiqah’s head moved forward in the beginning of a nod, and she somehow managed to turn away from the glass.
“Don’t forget to sign out in the front office and return the visitor’s pass,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. But only her lips moved. No sound came out.
Awkward silence followed as Mr. Butt stood opposite her, his arms still folded, his mouth forming a thin line.
“I’m really sorry about this.”
“I owe you an apology,” Rafiqah managed to mutter. “I shouldn’t have bothered you with this.”
“Mrs. Bilal, I’m Muslim too.” He sighed, shaking his head. “So I know this isn’t cute or innocent like I’m sure Mrs. Bradford imagines it to be.”
At the reminder of this all happening under adult supervision, Rafiqah tasted acrid bile rise to the back of her throat. She swallowed hard, fighting the urge to vomit right there.
Mr. Butt lifted his wrist and glanced at his watch. “We better go. The bell will ring soon, and we don’t want them to find us out here.”
It was those words that inspired life to return to Rafiqah’s limbs, and she fell in step behind Mr. Butt as he retreated down the hall.
That Friday afternoon, Samira walked quietly up to where Maryam was engrossed in something on the computer screen. She stood a safe distance behind Maryam’s shoulder as she watched Maryam type rhythmically on the keyboard.
After the day Maryam had caught Samira on Facebook, Maryam refused to speak to Samira or acknowledge her presence. Though Maryam previously did not log on to the internet when Samira visited, she started to surf the Web when Samira came over so that she could ignore her more easily.
“I thought you didn’t chat with boys.”
Maryam started. Eyes wide, she turned to find Samira looking at the computer screen. Maryam’s cheeks colored and she immediately clicked the mouse, minimizing the window.
“That would’ve made a juicy heart-to-heart,” Samira said with a grin.
Maryam slapped the desk as she turned to Samira. “I’m not chatting with boys.”
“That looked like a chat to me.”
“It’s a Muslim site.” Maryam tossed her head proudly. “Not Facebook.”
“I don’t chat with boys. Not even on Facebook.” Samira smirked as she folded her arms over her chest. “But maybe it’s Islamic to mix with boys when it’s not Facebook?”
“I’m not mixing with boys.” Maryam huffed then turned back to the screen, shutting down the computer.
“You’re just chatting with them, huh?”
“That wasn’t a boy.” Maryam stood, pulling the book off the desk next to her. She walked over to her bed and sat down on the bedspread, folding her legs like a pretzel.
“Abdullah-eight-eight-eight?” Samira tossed her head back in laughter. “That sounds like a boy’s screen name to me.”
Maryam’s cheeks were flushed as she looked up from her book. “I wasn’t talking to him.”
“So you’re admitting that Abdullah isn’t a girl?”
Maryam narrowed her eyes into slits. “Why don’t you mind your business? I was asking a question about Islam.”
“Yep…” Samira pursed her lips and snapped her fingers. “How could I ever imagine the saint would want to flirt?”
“Samira! How dare you.”
Samira threw up her hands, palms facing Maryam. “But don’t mind me. I’m sure your question was of the utmost urgency.” She smiled mischievously. “So…when I just casually mention to my mom that you go online, I’ll say you were getting a fatwa?”
Maryam’s mouth fell open.
Samira wagged a finger. “Don’t think I’d keep such an impeccable act of righteousness secret. The whole ummah should know that Maryam… No, wait—” Samira pressed her eyes shut and squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Yes, that’s it!” Samira opened her eyes and brought her palms together. “That Muslimah-two-two-five wants to save them from sin and corruption.”
“Look…” Maryam threw her book down as she met Samira’s gaze, her voice casual. “I don’t go even there all the time. I just wanted to ask a question.”
“And I presume you got your answer?”
Maryam looked uncertain. “Well…”
Samira waved a hand about her head. “Don’t worry about it. Who am I anyway? I’m not worth your time.” A smile spread on her face, her eyes twinkling. “But I’m sure Abdullah-eight-eight-eight is.”
“Samira, it’s nothing like that, I swear.”
“I believe you.” Samira clasped her hands behind her back as she paced the room. “I totally believe you. Just like I know you never disobey your parents.” A grin formed on her face. “Now, do you?”
Maryam sniffed. “My mom lets me go online anytime I want.”
“I’m sure she does.” Samira shrugged. “So I’m sure it won’t surprise her when my mom tells her you chat with boys.”
“And I’ll tell your mom that you have Facebook!”
Samira laughed. “Well, news to you. My mom knows I have Facebook.”
Maryam started to say something but stopped herself. “I don’t believe you.”
“Suit yourself. She knows. She found my Facebook page when we lived in Saudi.”
Maryam just stared at Samira, unsure what to say.
“And I really don’t care if she knows I used internet for homework. I might get in trouble, but—” Samira shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll get over it since it was for school.”
Samira regarded Maryam, a smile toying at her mouth as she folded her arms across her chest. “But you, my friend, have a lot of explaining to do about why you think it’s totally okay to chat with boys.”
The parking lot at the masjid that night was packed with cars. The speaker for the night’s lecture was known for his charisma, humor, and moving recitation of Qur’an. Even Muslim youth crowded the halls as they made their way to the main prayer hall to find a place to sit.
Samira spotted Latifah just as Latifah was kneeling outside the female prayer entrance to remove her shoes.
“Latifah,” Samira called out. She turned sideways to wedge herself between some women who were standing casually in the hall with their young children playing at their feet and their babies bawling so loudly that Samira could feel vibrations in her ears.
Latifah held her shoes mid-air as she looked behind her, her forehead creased.
As their gazes met, Latifah broke into a wide grin and glanced down as she dropped her shoes on the floor and slipped them back on.
“Where have you been, stranger?” Latifah said. Samira smirked then grabbed Latifah’s arm and guided her away from the crowd.
“I have to tell you something,” Samira said.
Before Latifah could reply, Samira let go of Latifah’s arm and pushed open one of the double exit doors that led to the masjid’s playground.
“Come on,” Samira said. “It won’t be so noisy out here.”
The rush of cold night air ripped through their head covers, causing the cloth to flap against their heads.
“Brrrr…” Latifah lifted her shoulders to shield her ears from the wind as she pushed her bare hands deep into the pockets of her coat. “It’s freezing out here.”
“It’ll only be a second,” Samira said as the door slammed closed behind them.
There was the distant sound of car engines stalling, car doors closing, and families chattering in the parking lot adjacent to the playground. The darkness outside was interrupted only by the street lamps blazing above the parked cars. A dim glow from the lamps lighted the area where the girls stood under an awning, feet from the double doors.
“You won’t believe what I caught Maryam doing today,” Samira said in a loud whisper, leaning toward Latifah’s ear.
The faint smell of cigarette smoke drifted to where they stood, and it was then that they noticed the shadow of a man sitting about twenty yards from them on a park bench in the playground, a tiny red glow of a cigarette in his hand. At the slight commotion of the girls, he turned to see who was there, a blank expression on his face. Frowning, he returned his attention to the deep darkness beyond the park.
“Maryam?” Latifah laughed, rolling her eyes. “Girl, you brought me all the way out here for some stupid gossip?”
“It’s not gossip. I’m telling the truth.”
Latifah shivered as a cold breeze swept toward them. “What was Maryam doing? And it better be worth my fingers falling off because I can’t feel them anymore.”
“Talking to boys.”
Latifah jerked her head toward Samira, her eyes widened. “You’re lying.”
“I swear. I was standing behind her, but she didn’t see me.”
“In her room.”
Latifah’s eyes grew so large that Samira feared that Latifah was having a heart attack.
“Boys? In her room?” Latifah narrowed her eyes. “How?”
Samira sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes upward as she realized why Latifah was so shocked. She laughed then slapped Latifah’s shoulder playfully. “No, stupid. I mean on the computer.”
Latifah slowly closed her eyes in relief, puffing out a breath of air as she brought a hand to her chest. “Thank God. I was about to pass out.”
Samira laughed. “No way. I mean….” She wrinkled her nose. “Ewww! That’s just…yuck.”
“Anyway, how do you know she was talking to boys?”
“The screen name. It was Abdullah-eight-eight-eight.”
“Are you serious?”
“She said it was a Muslim chat room and she was just asking a question.” Samira twisted her lips to the side and crossed her arms, as if saying, And you think I’m buying that?
Latifah shrugged. “Maybe it was. I can’t see Maryam chatting for no reason. It’s not like her.”
Samira put her hands on her hips. “Are you nuts? Everybody has a devil in them.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“My mom says so all the time.”
“I think she was joking, kiddo.”
“No, I mean, like a real devil. A jinn.”
“Oh now you’re going superstitious on me.”
“Oh, come on, Latifah. You know I’m saying the truth. It’s in the Qur’an.”
Latifah huffed. “Like I believe that.”
“Hello, Latifah?” Samira said sarcastically. “Haven’t you heard of a qareen?”
Latifah started to respond but stopped herself. “You mean like the…” Her hand went to her mouth. “Oh yeah. You’re right. I forgot about the jinn that stays with us.” She shuddered.
“Don’t remind me,” Latifah said. “I swear, I couldn’t sleep for days when the Islamic studies teacher told us about that.”
“So…” Samira said, returning to the subject of Maryam. “It isn’t like Maryam has an angel with her and the rest of us have a devil.”
“Okay,” Latifah said, slipping her hand back into her coat pocket, “even if that’s true. That doesn’t make her a bad person.” She shrugged. “If she says she was just asking a question, I think she was.”
“So it’s okay to talk online, you think?” Samira’s tone was of heightened curiosity, as if considering this perspective for the first time.
Latifah lifted her shoulders to her ears again, shivering as wind blew in her face. “I don’t see why not. It’s about your intentions.”
Samira’s expression was thoughtful as she looked at Latifah. “Would you? I mean, talk online to boys?”
Latifah averted her gaze, and Samira sensed her friend was thinking about the basketball games. Though Samira wasn’t in Latifah’s physical education class, she’d heard enough from schoolmates to know that if any of the rumors were true, Latifah wasn’t as innocent as Samira had initially imagined.
“I never have,” Latifah said. Her eyes were looking out toward the playground, where the man was crushing a cigarette with his shoe. “But I guess I would if I wasn’t talking about anything bad.”
“I never have either,” Samira said.
“What?” Latifah wore a smirk as she looked at Samira. “But you have Facebook.”
“But I never added any boys.”
Latifah looked genuinely surprised, and Samira felt a tinge of offense. Why did everybody think she was such a horrible person?
“I’m serious,” Samira said. “Boys scare me.”
Latifah laughed, but the sound was devoid of its usual heartiness. Samira sensed Latifah was feeling ashamed of herself again, and Samira wished she hadn’t said anything to remind Latifah of school.
Latifah let out a long sigh, staring distantly into the shadows of the playground. “They scare me too.”
“Tell me, brothers and sisters…” the speaker said. His voice reverberated in the main prayer hall and from the intercoms in the masjid corridors. Men sat in rows shoulder to shoulder on the carpeted floor, as did the women in their section, and those who had come late sat in the hallways on carpet that had been rolled out to accommodate the massive crowd. “…how did you just spend the last twenty four hours?”
There was a brief pause, and the microphone screeched. “Don’t worry,” the speaker said with a chuckle. “I’m not going to ask you to tell me out loud. So you can be honest with yourself.”
Uncomfortable laughter rippled through crowd. But seconds later, silence ensued, as the attendees sat reflecting on all they had done the previous day up till now.
“If I asked you to write it all down, put your name on it, and pass it to me, would you mind if I read it aloud?” the speaker said. “Then would you mind if I sent it to the tabloids, those shameful magazines that earn a living off of insulting people’s dignity, ruining reputations, breaking apart marriages, and destroying the most innocent of lives?”
He was silent momentarily as the question took full meaning.
“Then tell me, brothers and sisters, why we do the same to ourselves? Why do we insult our dignity, ruin our reputations, break apart our marriages, and destroy the innocent beauty of the lives Allah gave us at birth?”
The speaker sought refuge in Allah and his voice rose as he recited from the soorah of Qu’ran entitled Al-Hadeed—The Iron.
Has not the time come for the hearts of those who believe to be affected by Allah’s Reminder, and that which has been revealed of the truth? Lest they become like those who received the Scripture before and the term was prolonged so their hearts were hardened? And many of them were rebellious and disobedient.
After he translated the meaning in English, he asked, “Hasn’t that time come, brothers and sisters?” He paused before saying, “Or are you waiting for the earth to cover your bodies as you lie alone in your grave? But then you won’t have any choice but to answer aloud when you are commanded to tell how you spent the last hours of your life.”
“And now you want us to just take her out the school?” Hamid shook his head as he poured himself a glass of orange juice in the kitchen early Saturday morning. Their children had not yet wakened after praying Fajr prayer at dawn.
Rafiqah sat at the kitchen table in front of a bowl of cereal she no longer had an appetite for. She stabbed at the softening flakes with a spoon, her thoughts sad and distant.
After the lecture the night before, Rafiqah had been unable to sleep. She kept waking intermittently, anxiety tightening her chest. The image of the knotted cloth at Latifah’s waist and Latifah’s bursts of laughter as the muscle-toned boy lifted her off the ground kept playing over in her mind. When Rafiqah finally drifted to sleep, she was tormented with a dream of the handsome boy coaxing Latifah into a kiss in a misty locker room as the darkness of night closed around them, the abandoned school building locked and chained from the outside.
“I remember you said the same thing when Latifah was in the Muslim school.” Chair legs screeched against the tile floor as Hamid pulled out a chair for himself. His juice glass made a banging noise as he sat down and set it on the table. “And I distinctly remember disagreeing with you.”
“I was wrong, Hamid. I realize that now.”
Rafiqah was uncertain how much she should share with her husband. All she had told him was that the P.E. teacher was allowing some students to play co-ed sports and Latifah was participating. She knew that if she revealed the details of the meeting with Mr. Butt and what she had seen with her own eyes, Hamid would withdraw Latifah immediately and punish her severely. But that couldn’t happen without Latifah learning that her parents knew what was happening. Rafiqah feared the humiliation of Latifah openly facing her sin would crush her daughter.
Rafiqah had been young once, and she recalled how traumatizing it had been when her parents berated her for a stupid mistake she had made. She was now almost forty years old, and she still had not recovered. Her parents had even brought up the incident a few years before when they scoffed at her “hypocrisy” in practicing Islam. It had felt like she was fifteen all over again, shrinking under the harsh judgment of parents who could not forget or forgive.
There was certainly divine wisdom in the prophetic instruction to cover a person’s faults, and that was what Rafiqah intended to do for Latifah. Rafiqah would not take from Latifah what her parents had taken from her—a right to the human dignity and respect they demanded for themselves.
“You realize that now.” Hamid grunted and shook his head as he repeated his wife’s words. He lifted the glass he held then finished the juice in gulps. He set the empty glass on the table, a ring of orange reflecting on the bottom.
“What about all the psychological trauma you talked about?” Hamid said. “All the racist taunting from fellow Muslims that you said would scar her for life? That doesn’t matter to you anymore?”
“It matters to me. It’s just that I realize now that the trauma of public school could be worse.”
Hamid threw his head back in amused laughter. “Oh doesn’t that sound familiar?” He was looking at his wife now.
“Yes,” Rafiqah said, unable to meet his gaze. “It’s the reason you gave for saying we should keep her in Muslim school.”
“Man, I tell you, Rafiqah. You really had me convinced. I kept thinking about all the post-traumatic stress Black people suffer, and what our parents went through fighting Jim Crow only to wish they could make separate-but-equal work.”
“I don’t know, Hamid. I still think Muslim school will leave scars, you know, with all the racism these immigrants bring from their cultures. But…” She breathed thoughtfully. “…I guess it’s like they say. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You know what I mean?”
He huffed in agreement, a smile lingering on his face. “Ain’t that the truth.”
“At Muslim school, I’m still worried about her psychological well being. But now…” She stirred the soggy cereal, lost in thought. “…I’m worried about her soul.”
Hamid was quiet, his eyes squinted as he shook the empty glass. There was the sound of movement upstairs, likely one of the children waking up and preparing to come downstairs for breakfast.
“I’ll think about it,” he said finally.
Seconds passed in silence, and Hamid chuckled to himself. “I remember one thing my father always said. ‘Son, women will drive you nuts with all their crazy feelings and what not, so you just have to be a man and do what you know is right. But don’t trivialize the intuition of a good woman, son. I swear to God, sometimes I feel like it comes from the Lord himself.’”
“Now I hope you’ll stop using that stupid Facebook,” Maryam said. It was Saturday afternoon and Samira sat facing the monitor of Maryam’s computer, Samira’s hand poised on the mouse as Maryam guided her through the process of navigating the Muslim site.
“You have to click ‘OK’,” Maryam said, leaning forward and pointing to an icon on the screen.
“This is so cool,” Samira said as she clicked the final approval button to open an account on the Muslim website that Maryam frequented.
Maryam rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but I wish you would’ve chosen a different screen name.”
“What’s wrong with Desi-girl-one-oh-one?” Samira turned her head slightly and met Maryam’s gaze. “I like it.”
“It just sounds so…worldly.”
“Oh, stop it. Now you’re sounding like your mother.”
At the mention of her mother, Maryam felt a tinge of guilt for giving in to Samira’s urging to let her use the computer.
“And between you and me, I couldn’t care less if Samira surfs the net.”
At the reminder of her mother’s words, Maryam’s anxiety lessened. Maryam would just make sure Samira stayed on Muslim sites. Then maybe Samira wouldn’t care about posting pictures of herself on Facebook, even if she didn’t have any boys as friends. Anyway, how could she be sure none of her friends’ brothers saw the pictures?
But part of Maryam dreaded what her mother would think if she found out Samira was going online.
“That’s the least of our worries.” Her mother was right, Maryam thought to herself. There were thousands of worse things Samira could be doing. Sister Joanne would be better off asking her daughter to follow the Islamic rules about music and proper hijab.
END OF ONLINE SERIES
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