It was a Monday morning in early September when Inaya followed Sa’ad and Veronica as they entered the glass double doors of the public school that Inaya would attend. Heart hammering in excitement, Inaya stared in awe at the massive main staircase and the ceiling-to-floor glass pillars displaying academic and athletic trophies, plaques, and medals. She slowed her steps to study the smiling faces in some of the framed pictures next to the awards.
“You can wait out here if you want,” Veronica said, prompting Inaya to turn toward her mother, who was holding open the door to the front office across the hall. “We’ll let you know if we need you.”
“Okay.” Inaya nodded as Veronica followed Sa’ad into the office, the door closing behind them.
Inaya walked slowly along the pillars, pausing to study the inscriptions on each award. 2nd Place National Varsity Cheerleading Competition. 1st Place Regional Spelling Bee Champions. Who’s Who Among American High School Scholars. Distinguished Student Award, 2008. National Scholars Award, 2010. Award for Academic Excellence, 2009. Future Hope Scholars, 2011.
“May I help you?”
Inaya started and found herself opposite a young man wearing a polite smile, his hands clasped near his waist.
Inaya didn’t know what to say so she just stared at him.
“Are you a student here?” he asked, the polite smile still on his face. Inaya sensed that he thought she was violating a rule of some kind.
It was then that Inaya saw the badge attached to the left side of his dress shirt. “Student Ambassador.”
His kind mannerisms and the walnut brown of his face held a vague sense of familiarity, but Inaya couldn’t explain this feeling.
“If so, you need a hall pass during class times.”
Inaya shook her head. “I’m not a student,” she said finally. “My parents are in the office registering me for school.”
His eyebrows rose in understanding. “Yes, of course.” There was an awkward pause, as neither knew what to say.
“If you would like to take a look around,” he said, “feel free. But you’ll need a visitor’s pass and a chaperone.”
Inaya lifted her eyebrows. “A chaperone?”
He laughed lightly. “I know it sounds like a first date, but it’s our school policy for visitors.”
Inaya’s cheeks grew warm, and she averted her gaze. “I’m sorry… I didn’t know. I just…”
“No problem,” he said, holding up a hand. “Just wait here for a moment.”
Before Inaya could respond, he disappeared into an unlabeled door near the front office. He reappeared less than a minute later and handed her a badge similar to the one he was wearing. She hesitated momentarily then accepted it. “VISITOR” it said in all-red capital letters.
“Just pin it to your dress, and no one should bother you.”
There was an awkward silence as she struggled with the safety pin affixed to the back of the plastic. When she was finally able to close the pin, the badge hung lopsided.
“Where are you from?”
Inaya heard the question as she frowned at the visitor badge. “I’m sorry?” Inaya said, as she glanced up at the student.
“You have an interesting accent,” he said, his dark eyes kind as he looked at her. “I was just wondering where you’re from.”
Inaya’s eyes widened slightly. “I do?”
The ambassador laughed heartily, and the long dimples in his cheeks made Inaya realize why he seemed familiar to her. He resembled the singer Usher, whose public divorce and court case she and her friends had followed in the internet news in Saudi Arabia.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and it was then that Inaya realized his laugh was from embarrassment. “I didn’t mean it offensively. It’s just…Well, I thought you sounded Arab.”
Inaya creased her forehead, unable to hide her amused expression. “Arab?”
His smile faded, but he tried to appear diplomatic. “I’m not good at judging ethnicities. It was just a wild guess.”
“I’m American,” Inaya said, unable to keep from chuckling. “But I suppose it makes sense.” She shrugged. “My family just came back from Saudi Arabia.”
“Cool.” His wide smile returned. “Do you speak Arabic?”
Inaya nodded. “A bit.”
“Maybe that’s where the accent comes from.”
Inaya was silent, unsure how she felt about having an Arab accent. She would have to be more careful when she spoke.
An awkward silence followed.
“Do you want to take a look around the school?” the student ambassador asked.
Inaya grinned. “I thought I needed a chaperone for that,” she said, surprised by how comfortable she felt with him.
A smile spread on his face. “I could be your chaperone.”
Inaya felt wary all of a sudden, but she maintained a pleasant expression.
“As a student ambassador,” he added quickly, as if sensing her apprehension.
She glanced uncertainly at the door to the main office.
“We’ll stay on this floor,” he said.
“Okay…” she said reluctantly. “As long as we don’t go far.”
“No problem,” he said with a smile. “It’ll only take a minute.”
Inaya bit her lower lip as a hesitant smile formed on her face. “That would be great. Thanks.”
“Forgive me.” He smiled and stuck out his hand. “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Raymond.”
It took a moment for Inaya to realize that he was waiting for her to shake his hand. Her cheeks grew warm, and her heart pounded wildly in her chest.
“I’m Inaya,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. She tucked her hands deep into the pockets of her jilbaab and smiled widely at him.
Raymond’s face registered confusion then embarrassment. He pulled his hand away. “I’m sorry. I forgot that you don’t—”
“It’s okay.” Inaya felt so stupid. He probably thought she was an idiot.
Raymond appeared flustered, but a hesitant grin formed on his face as he started down the hall. “I guess I’m not the best chaperone, huh?”
Inaya was unsure how to respond, so she just fell in step next to him.
“This hall leads to the auditorium,” he said as they rounded the corner. “That’s where the ambassadors have their orientation.”
There was an awkward silence, and Inaya glanced sideways at him.
“But I guess I didn’t listen well to the instructions,” he said with a smile, and Inaya sensed he was making a joke.
“Multicultural sensitivity training,” he said, still smiling. “That’s where the ambassadors learned about different cultures.” He chuckled. “I forgot about the Wahhabi sect.” His tone was apologetic. “We don’t have a lot of fundamentalists at the school.”
Inaya winced and her cheeks burned in offense. She was so upset that she couldn’t look at him.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” she murmured, her heart pounding in nervous anger. “But I’m not a fundamentalist.”
Raymond knitted his eyebrows in confusion. “I’m sorry. I just assumed…”
“You shouldn’t assume.” Inaya’s voice was tight.
Raymond remained silent, and Inaya sensed he had no idea what he’d done wrong.
Inaya was suddenly self-conscious of the black khimaar that framed her face and the wide black over-garment that she was sure looked like a stupid oversized dress.
A classroom door opened in front of them and they halted their steps as a girl and boy emerged holding hands. The girl was leaning her head on the boy’s shoulder, but when her eyes met Inaya’s, the girl lifted her head and wrinkled her nose.
“What the hell is that?” the girl said in a harsh whisper. The boy responded only by contorting his face as he neared Inaya.
“Do you have a pass?” Raymond said, his voice loud and authoritative.
Inaya sensed the ambassador wanted her to know he didn’t agree with the student’s snide remark. But she was only slightly appeased. She wanted to shrink through the floor right then.
The girl’s nose flared in irritation as she flashed a yellow slip of paper in front of Raymond then rolled her eyes in exaggerated annoyance.
“If you want to keep the school safe,” the boy said, a look of disgust on his face as he glanced at Inaya, pulling his girlfriend closer to him, “then worry about that terrorist you’re escorting.”
The girl snickered.
“You wouldn’t want to be party to killing innocent students.”
Inaya’s eyes widened in shock and embarrassment, but the boy and girl had already turned away.
Raymond stood still, his eyes fiery as he stared after them, their laughter still audible as they disappeared down the hall.
“Idiots,” he muttered to himself.
His lips formed a thin line as he looked at Inaya. “I’m sorry about that,” he said with a sigh. “Unfortunately, only the student ambassadors went through multicultural sensitivity training.”
Inaya huffed as she walked away from the amabassor toward the hall leading to the front office. And I’m still a fundamentalist to you.
Still shaken, Inaya was silent as she rode in the back of the car after her parents finished the registration process. Her face was warm in shame and upset. She sunk low into her seat until the car was far from the school. She couldn’t shake the feeling of shame she felt right then. Even her mother and stepfather looked like extremists.
A wave of embarrassment passed through Inaya as she wondered what Raymond must think of her. Ugh. Why did he have to be standing in the hall when her parents walked out of the office?
She couldn’t imagine what Raymond thought of her stepfather’s obvious Arab appearance and large beard—and her mother’s all-black Saudi-style abaya and face veil.
“But I’m not a fundamentalist.”
That was probably the question Raymond had been too polite to ask.
And so what? Inaya thought to herself. She couldn’t care less what that stupid so-called student ambassador thought of her.
Multicultural sensitivity? Yeah right. Raymond’s charade of kindness was only because he was on hall duty. He probably wouldn’t want to be seen talking to the Arab-sounding girl outside of that.
Inaya felt sick as the sound of Arabic came from the car speakers. She rolled her eyes. A “fundamentalist lecture.” That’s probably what Raymond would think of this Arab sheikh’s guttural exhortations.
“Cool. Do you speak Arabic?”
A knot loosened in her chest at the memory, but Inaya didn’t trust the softness she felt toward Raymond right then. After all, he wasn’t on her side.
“Then worry about that terrorist you’re escorting.”
Inaya’s head throbbed, and she slumped in her seat.
“I look forward to having a normal life again.”
What? Had Inaya really said that to her friends?
Right then, Inaya had no idea what “normal” even meant…and it frustrated her that, as a Muslim girl, she’d be denied any opportunity to learn.
“Oh, I can’t tell you how excited we are to have Inaya with us.” The woman’s green eyes sparkled as she stood next to the teacher’s desk Saturday morning. “We’ve heard so much about her.”
Inaya forced a smile and glanced around at the walls of the small classroom. White papers bearing large, black-outlined Arabic letters filled with children’s colored scribbles were taped to the walls. For a second, Inaya forgot she was at the Muslim school that was a forty-minute drive from her family’s apartment. She felt like she was in Saudi Arabia right then. Inaya looked away and concentrated on staring at her shoes.
“How long did it take you to memorize Qur’an?”
An inscription carved into a student’s desk caught Inaya’s eye and she lifted her head to make out what it said. She ran the tips of her fingers over the carving.
“Inaya.” Veronica’s voice was of forced politeness, the tone Veronica used in public when she was annoyed with her daughter.
Blinking in confusion, Inaya turned to her mother.
“Sister Amal is talking to you.”
Inaya smiled her apology, realizing that the question could only have been meant for her. Her mother hadn’t memorized Qur’an yet.
“Three years,” Inaya said, forcing a smile as she studied Sister Amal for the first time.
Inaya wondered if her mother would let her wear a pink hijab, white blouse, and embroidered skirt instead of the black hijab and jilbaab she’d worn in Saudi Arabia. Sister Amal’s outfit was one Inaya could stomach wearing to school.
Would Inaya wear the same outfit every day? During her entire first week of school, the only indication that she had even bothered to change clothes had been the different color trims on the edge of her head cover and sleeves. But she doubted anyone had even noticed.
“Is she some sort of Goth or something?” one student had whispered during Biology class. “Looks more like an Arab Emo to me,” the other had responded sarcastically.
“MaashaAllah,” Amal said, tilting her head to the side as she smiled at Inaya. “You’re such an inspiration. I hope you’ll agree to work at the weekend school.”
Inaya felt the beginning of a headache, but she forced a smile, stopping short of consenting. She didn’t know anyone here. How could she just walk in and start teaching, even if the students would be children?
“She would love to,” Veronica said as she put an arm around Inaya’s shoulders and pulled her close, grinning proudly at her daughter. “She taught Qur’an in Saudi Arabia.”
“Really?” Amal’s eyes widened, and she couldn’t contain her excitement. “That’s wonderful, maashaAllah.”
Amal shook her head and sighed, her expression still pleasant. “You have no idea how hard it is for us to keep a Qur’an teacher. We’ve only been open for three weeks, and already they’ve had two teachers.”
Amal’s face registered concern as she looked at Inaya. “Do you mind teaching a class for us?”
Inaya glanced uncertainly at her mother, whose smile told her that she didn’t have much of a choice. Inaya gave Amal a tight-lipped smile. “Sure,” she said. “When do I start?”
Amal smiled apologetically and glanced at the clock on the wall behind them, and Inaya’s chest constricted in anxiety. “The students should be here in fifteen minutes.”
When the last of the eighteen children settled into their seats, Inaya’s heart hammered in her chest. She parted her lips to speak, but she found difficulty catching her breath.
Before Inaya could introduce herself, two boys hopped from their seats and began wrestling each other. Some boys and girls twisted their bodies to watch.
Two students in the front row, a boy and a girl, stared at Inaya unblinking, jaws agape, as if trying to figure out where she had come from.
A little girl raised her hand anxiously, squirming in her seat as she tried to get Inaya’s attention.
A sharp pain knotted at Inaya’s temples, and she glanced at the clock. How would she last fifty-four more minutes? In Riyadh, all of her teaching had been in her home with peers. She had no idea how to handle a real class.
The little girl began bobbing up and down in her chair and waving a hand back and forth. “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!”
Because Inaya had no idea what else to do, she pointed to the girl and nodded.
“Is Sister Zaynab coming back?”
Inaya creased her forehead. She didn’t even know who Sister Zaynab was. “I…don’t know.”
“Will you be our new teacher?”
“Well…yes, I think so.”
Suddenly, the commotion of the wrestling match quieted, and one of the boys who had been fighting glared at Inaya, an angry pout on his face. “We don’t want you to teach us. You look stupid.”
“You look stupid,” the other boy said as he shoved his opponent in an apparent attempt to resume the fight.
Inaya’s face burned in shame, and she felt anger building in her chest. “Sit down! Now!”
Commotion broke out immediately, as if Inaya’s yelling had given the students permission to become rowdy themselves. Some students got out of their seats to watch the fight. Others wandered around the classroom observing the modest decorations on the walls. Still others stared with unabashed amazement at the new teacher.
How dare these children disrespect her! She might not be a real teacher, but she was much older than these five-, six-, and seven-year-olds.
“I said…” Inaya raised her voice until her throat hurt. “…sit down! Now!”
A hush of silence rippled through the room until the children stared at Inaya in disbelief. The boys who had been fighting scrambled to their feet, their breathing audible as they glowered at Inaya.
The girl who had asked the question shrank in her seat, her eyes wide in fear. “You don’t have to yell at us,” she muttered, her voice shaky.
Inaya’s head pounded and her hands trembled in nervousness. “Sit down,” she said in a calmer tone, her eyes raking the classroom. “Please.”
Inaya drew in a deep breath as the children took their seats, their expressions uneasy. She reached for the large Qur’an on the teacher’s desk and lifted the heavy book as she slid into the wooden chair.
“Now,” she said, uncertain what she should do next, her eyes jumping nervously from the Qur’an to the class, “let’s recite Al-Faatihah.”
“What?” Kayla wrinkled her nose from where she sat on her bed across from Inaya. “Is that like Bible study or something?”
Inaya sighed as she leaned back on the palms of her hands, her legs folded like a pretzel in front of her. It was Saturday afternoon, and Veronica had gone out with Kayla’s parents. Inaya’s gaze shifted momentarily to Abdullah, who slept in his car seat on the floor of the bedroom.
Inaya shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“That’s messed up.” Kayla leaned against the headboard and tilted her head to the side to continue twisting her hair. “I can barely stand babysitting. I can’t imagine teaching.”
Inaya exhaled audibly. “Yeah, I know.”
There was a pregnant pause, and Inaya felt Kayla staring at her.
“Are you going to wear those Arab clothes to school every day?”
It took a moment for Inaya to register her cousin’s question. Inaya creased her forehead and sat up, her hands now in her lap. “What?”
“Those black robes.” Kayla gestured her head toward the chair where Inaya’s khimaar and jilbaab hung over its back. “Will you wear them to school?”
Inaya contorted her face in offense. “Yes.”
“Chill,” Kayla said, her lip upturned. “I was just curious.”
Inaya rolled her eyes. What was Kayla getting at? That Inaya’s clothes were ugly or something? Kayla saw Inaya every day at school. They even had English class together. So Kayla knew that Inaya would wear the clothes to school because Inaya had already worn them to school—every day.
“I just don’t get it, that’s all.”
“Get what?” Inaya glared at Kayla defensively.
“Why you dress like that.”
“I’m Muslim, Kayla. Quit trying to act stupid.”
Kayla narrowed her eyes at her cousin. “Girl, what’s your problem? I didn’t know Muslims had to dress like somebody died.”
Inaya widened her eyes, wounded. “I’m not dressing like somebody died. I’m dressing like a Muslim.”
“Then why doesn’t Nasra dress like you?”
Inaya grew quiet. Nasra was a senior at the school and was well-liked despite being openly Muslim, at least that’s the impression Inaya got.
Inaya had met Nasra on Thursday during lunch period when Nasra had come to the table where Inaya was sitting with Kayla and her friends. After handing them a flyer about her campaign for Student Council, Nasra shared what she planned to do if she were elected president.
But Inaya remembered nothing of what Nasra had said. Inaya couldn’t get over how Nasra spoke to her classmates as if she were their equal, as if she wasn’t wearing a cloth draped around her head and neck and an oversized shirt that hung to the knees of her baggy jeans. Nasra had even given Inaya salaams before she left to the next lunch table.
But Inaya had averted her gaze and mumbled a reply, fearing her schoolmates would overhear and think she was weird for speaking a foreign language.
“Nasra is different,” Inaya said, her voice tight with emotion. She hoped her cousin would change the subject.
Kayla squinted her eyes curiously. “But aren’t you both Muslim?”
Inaya had no idea what to say. “Yeah, but…” But what?
“Why don’t you just dress like Nasra?” Kayla said. “Then you wouldn’t look so drab.”
Inaya groaned and rolled her eyes.
Abdullah started to squirm and whine in his car seat.
“No offense,” Kayla said.
“Just forget it,” Inaya said as she shoved herself off the bed and kneeled next to her little brother. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
But it did matter, Inaya thought. The deadweight of dread hung in her chest as she rocked her little brother’s chair back and forth to quiet his cries. She had no idea how she would stomach walking into school Monday morning wearing the same “drab” black khimaar and jilbaab she had worn all last week.
“Is she some sort of Goth or something?”
Inaya winced at the thought.
Why did she have to look like some Gothic freak? What was wrong with wearing bright colors and baggy pants?
Abdullah’s cries grew louder and Inaya gripped the edge of her brother’s chair and rocked it more urgently.
“Do you need some help?”
Inaya turned to see Kayla standing behind her. “Yes, I do,” Inaya said with a sigh of frustration. “Please.”
Next… Story 3 of 5 Posted every Friday
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE
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