Monday morning, Inaya sat looking out the passenger-side window next to Kayla, who was giving her a ride to school. Inaya felt uncomfortable in her drab all-black garb, but a surge of nervous excitement sent her heart racing as she glanced down at the sliver of jean skirt peeking through the open buttons of her jilbaab.
The idea had come to her Sunday afternoon, and Inaya had trembled at its simplicity. Why was she stressing over wearing the same thing every day when all she had to do was wear something different? If her mother wanted her to wear all black, she would—until she got to school.
It wasn’t like she wouldn’t be covered, Inaya told herself, quieting the guilt that twisted a knot of anxiety in her chest. She just wouldn’t wear the jilbaab. Other Muslim girls wore loose, modest clothes in place of the bulky over-garment that was favored in Saudi Arabia. Did that make them bad Muslims? They still wore hijab.
“Who will you vote for for Student Council?”
It took a few seconds for Inaya to register Kayla’s question. Inaya creased her forehead and turned to her cousin.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice even despite her pounding heart.
The mention of Student Council reminded Inaya of the large sign she had seen posted just beyond the entrance to the school on Friday afternoon.
Raymond Dirks for Student Council President. He’ll get the job done. Period.
Inaya had halted her steps as the student ambassador’s motionless eyes held her gaze from the large smiling picture affixed to the poster stand. Her heart grew warm in flattery at knowing this candidate personally, and she smiled to herself.
“Doesn’t he look good?” The question had seemed to come out of nowhere as Inaya stood in the hall. Startled, Inaya had spun on her heels to find herself staring into the face of the very person she was admiring in the photo.
Raymond had laughed then patted her on the shoulder, apparently forgetting the lessons from his multicultural sensitivity training.
“Vote for me, okay?” he said with a wink before disappearing down the hall to distribute the paper flyers he had tucked under an arm.
“I think I’m going for Nasra,” Kayla said.
As Kayla steered the car into the parking lot of the school, Inaya could still feel the impression of Raymond’s hand on her shoulder, and her face grew warm in nervous excitement.
Inaya just wished her khimaar was another color, but all her head covers were black. She hoped the black scarf wouldn’t look too awkward with her white pearl-button shirt and long blue-jean skirt. Her slip-on shoes were black, so maybe the black hijab would actually complement her outfit today.
The buzz of chatter and commotion was intoxicating as Inaya pulled open one of the heavy double doors leading to the school. Inaya held the door and stepped aside until Kayla entered then followed her cousin inside.
“Why don’t you vote for Raymond?” Inaya asked as she fell in step next to Kayla. They were making their way to the girls’ bathroom to check their appearances as they did each morning.
Kayla shrugged. “I just think Nasra would do a better job.”
Inaya nodded as if considering her cousin’s comment, but her thoughts were on removing the black garment as quickly as she could. Besides, she didn’t want to think of Nasra right then. For some reason, the girl made Inaya uncomfortable.
Inaya yanked at the fabric of her jilbaab and began unfastening the buttons as she and her cousin neared the end of the hall.
“Anyway,” Kayla said, pushing open the door to the girls bathroom, “Raymond gets picked for everything. I think it’s time somebody else got a chance.”
“He was president before?” Inaya asked absently. Her heart raced wildly as she shrugged off the jilbaab and walked toward the full-size mirror, where a few students were applying make-up.
“No,” Kayla said as she ran a hand over her fresh twists. “But he was vice president for two years in a row.”
Inaya balled up the garment and stuffed it into her book bag. “I like Raymond,” she said, shocked by her own boldness. “I mean, as president of Student Council,” she said too quickly, her eyes darting to Kayla anxiously.
Kayla snorted, a smile teasing one side of her mouth. “Who doesn’t?” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think the boy has a single flaw.”
Inaya felt possessive of Raymond all of a sudden. Did Kayla like him or something? Inaya scolded herself at the thought. Even if Kayla did, so what? Inaya was Muslim—and plain-looking. No one as handsome and popular as Raymond would even notice her.
But the girl who stared back at Inaya in the mirror startled her. Inaya’s appearance was in stark contrast to her growing insecurity. The white blouse and skirt fell loosely over Inaya’s form but accented her shape so attractively that it was breathtaking.
Is that me?
Inaya’s body jerked as someone yanked on her arm, the motion causing the khimaar to loosen itself from Inaya’s head.
“You go girl!” Kayla said, a wide grin on her face. She squeezed Inaya’s arm approvingly as she looked Inaya up and down. “That really suits you.”
Inaya smiled despite herself as she reached up to readjust her hijab. “You think so?”
Kayla nodded emphatically. “Definitely.”
Inaya was still smiling as she tucked a piece of black fabric under her chin, but the khimaar did not stay in place. Groaning, Inaya pulled the cloth from her head then carefully set it back on her head. A few braids escaped from the elastic ponytail holder, making it impossible to readjust the head cover without re-securing the elastic band. Inaya sighed and draped the cloth over her shoulders so she could fix her hair.
“I’m glad you gave up that—”
The shrilling of the bell interrupted Kayla midsentence, and her eyes widened in fear. “Oh my God,” Kayla said. The other students scrambled out the bathroom, shoving roughly past Kayla and Inaya. “That’s the second bell.”
Inaya’s heart raced as she fumbled with the band at the back of her head. She didn’t want to be late, but if she didn’t leave now with Kayla, she probably would be. Inaya was still learning her way around the large school, and she doubted she could find her class on her own.
“Come on.” Kayla’s eyes pleaded, annoyance on her face. “We only have a minute before they give late passes.”
Inaya quickly tucked her braids into a small bun then reached for the khimaar that was draped over her shoulders. When she didn’t feel the cloth immediately, she looked down at herself then at her reflection. The fabric was nowhere in sight.
“What?” Kayla’s voice became concerned all of a sudden.
“My hijab—” Frantic, Inaya patted herself and looked at her reflection again.
“M-m-my…” Inaya was so panicked she couldn’t speak. A hand went to her head as her eyes scanned the floor near where she stood.
It took Kayla only a second to register what her cousin was looking for, and she too turned and started to look for the cloth.
“Can’t you just find it later?”
A surge of anger rose in Inaya’s chest, and she started to respond flippantly. But her thoughts were interrupted as she saw a flash of black peeking from behind the wall leading to the restroom exit.
Inaya rushed toward it, but she withdrew her hand and halted her steps when she saw that the khimaar was trampled with shoeprints and lay next to an overflowing trashcan. A small puddle of dirty water glistened from beneath the fabric, and a discarded paper towel lay crumpled atop.
“There it is,” Kayla said, sighing in relief as she grabbed the khimaar from the floor and shoved it into Inaya’s hand. “Now let’s go.”
Kayla pulled Inaya by the arm, and Inaya shuffled her feet as she reluctantly followed her cousin.
Inaya felt naked beneath the bright fluorescent lights of the wide hallway as Kayla quickened her steps and let go of Inaya’s arm. Inaya fell back and dragged her feet, letting the gap between her and her cousin grow wider.
“Your class is right around the corner upstairs,” Kayla called out over her shoulder.
“See you at lunch,” Kayla said before she broke into a sprint toward her own classroom.
But Inaya’s thoughts were not on being late to class. As she slowly approached the staircase, her eyes were on the soiled khimaar balled up in her hand.
She needed to put on her hijab. The urgency of the thought made Inaya glance back at the bathroom as she mentally calculated how long it would take to clean the cloth and put it back on.
Maybe she should just skip homeroom, she considered. That way she’d have time to get properly dressed.
But the cold dampness of the fabric repulsed her. Could she really put the filthy cloth back on her head, even if she washed it in the sink first?
“Get to class!” someone called out from down the hall.
The voice reminded Inaya of Raymond, and a strange sensation came over her. She glanced behind her, anxious to see if Raymond was on hall duty.
Inaya felt disappointed when she saw that it was only a teacher.
The teacher glowered at Inaya as the late bell rang, and Inaya quickened her steps as she yanked at the zipper of her backpack and stuffed the cloth inside.
Inaya felt invisible as she stood waiting for a late pass in the front office. The secretary did not even look up as she set the late-student roster in front of Inaya. Inaya furrowed her brows as she lifted the pen attached to a clipboard and leaned forward to write her name. Inaya’s eyes danced between the roster and the secretary as Inaya scribbled her name and slid the clipboard back to the woman.
“Your student I.D. please,” the secretary said, no trace of forced politeness in her tone. But when Inaya had come to retrieve her class schedule the week before, the same woman had raked her eyes over Inaya with such scrutiny that Inaya had felt suffocated in her skin.
“My I.D.?” Inaya creased her forehead as she looked over the desk at the secretary, who held out a hand and wore a courteous smile that Inaya had imagined was reserved for other students.
“Your student identification card, dear.”
“Oh… I don’t have one.”
The woman knitted her eyebrows as she withdrew her hand and scribbled an illegible note next to Inaya’s name. “All students must carry an identification card on school premises.”
“I’m sorry,” Inaya said. “I didn’t know.”
The secretary frowned, but her expression remained pleasant. “Who’s your homeroom teacher?”
Inaya creased her forehead. “Mr. Rhodes,” Inaya said finally. She was still trying to remember her teachers’ names.
The woman removed a pen from a canister and wrote a note on a yellow sticky note then handed it to Inaya.
“Give this to Mr. Rhodes,” the secretary said. “You’ll need to get your I.D. form from him. Make sure it’s signed, then take it to the Student Affairs Office.
Inaya accepted the small note, but her expression was blank as she looked at the secretary. “Where’s that?”
“Next to the gymnasium on the first floor,” the woman said. “That’s where you’ll get your I.D.”
Inaya nodded and started for the door.
“Don’t forget this.”
Inaya turned to find the secretary smiling, her hand outstretched holding a late pass.
Inaya smiled gratefully. “Thank you.”
Ten minutes later, Inaya was carrying the signed I.D. form and her late pass as she descended a flight of steps. A surge of excitement shot through her, and her hands trembled. If she took her I.D. picture now, she would be forever invisible—an anonymous, bareheaded nobody—just as she had been before her mother accepted Islam.
Inaya Donald. That’s what her I.D. card would read just below her headshot.
Thank God for Chris Donald, Inaya thought. Without the headscarf and over-garment, her father’s “normal” family name could work in her favor. No one would mistake her for Arab anymore—or Muslim.
But Inaya’s confidence waned as she approached the doorplate that read “Student Affairs Office.”
What was she doing? Was she out of her mind?
For a moment, Inaya’s legs felt as if they would give out. She halted her steps to lean against a wall, the throbbing in her head making her feel dizzy.
What if her mother found out? Or even her stepfather?
Thanks for teaching us…love for Allah’s sake.
Thanks for telling us to pray and cover—
Without taking a break!
Inaya could almost hear Rafa and her friends reciting the poem, their words an eerie taunt that traveled across a continent and an ocean to haunt Inaya at this moment.
Inaya dropped her head in shame and felt the deadweight of the black cloth that was stuffed into the bag slung over her shoulder.
Why didn’t Inaya just wash it in the restroom and dry it with the automatic hand dryer?
“May I help you?”
Inaya jerked her shoulders in surprise and stood up straight. She hadn’t heard the door open.
Arms folded authoritatively, a middle-aged woman with gray streaks in her hair stood in front of the now-open door to the Student Affairs Office. For some reason, the woman reminded Inaya of her grandmother.
“A Muslim?” Inaya’s grandmother had said the day she learned that her success-driven, stunningly beautiful, only daughter had left the church. She had nearly spat the words, but even if Veronica’s mother had said nothing, her disgust was unmistakable in her expression of exaggerated confusion and disapproval.
Similarly, this woman’s rich brown face was contorted so violently that Inaya shuddered—just as Inaya had before her grandmother so many years before.
“I’m sorry, I…” Inaya muttered. Her throat went dry and she quickly handed the lady the signed student identification form that her homeroom teacher had given her. Inaya coughed and cleared her throat. “…I just need an I.D.”
The woman snatched the paper and glowered at Inaya suspiciously before slowly taking her eyes from Inaya to review the form.
Inaya’s heart raced as the expression of disapproval became more pronounced as the woman skimmed the form.
“You should’ve just come in,” the lady said finally, her voice raspy. She lifted the form in the air and waved Inaya inside.
The smell of cigarettes and stale coffee burned Inaya’s nostrils as she followed the woman inside. As the woman closed the door behind them, Inaya felt suffocated in the cramped space. She glanced around for a place to sit.
“Put your bag over there.” The woman nodded her head toward a floor-to-ceiling, industrial-style metal shelf that lined the entire right wall and was filled with stacks of bulging file folders.
Reluctantly, Inaya took a step toward the messy array of files and saw that there were more files stacked on the floor. Inaya scanned the area until she found an empty space between the large wooden desk and the metal shelves. She dropped her bag there then stood uncertainly next to the only chair she saw other than the large leather one behind the desk.
“Please take a seat,” the woman said, her voice exhausted and irritated. She slammed the identification form on the desk as she sat down then pulled her chair closer. “I have a lot of work to do.”
Inaya quickly sat down and folded her hands neatly on her lap, sitting up straight.
“I’m Mrs. Ford.” The woman reached for a coffee mug and brought it to her mouth and took a sip. Still holding the glass cup, Mrs. Ford eagerly read the rest of the I.D. form that Inaya had handed her. “I presume you’re new to this school?”
Inaya felt Mrs. Ford’s eyes on her and she nodded nervously, her mind on the khimaar stuffed in the backpack that was now out of reach. “Yes, I am.”
“Then you need to know that you are not allowed on the premises without a school-issued picture I.D.,” Mrs. Ford said tartly.
Inaya nodded, her face growing warm at the word picture. Was she really going through with this? Maybe she should get her hijab. Her eyes darted toward where her book bag lay next to a pile of file folders.
“Go through that divider.” Mrs. Ford stood and nodded her head toward a curtain to the left. She took a sip of coffee and glanced at the I.D. form again, sending Inaya’s heart racing at what was about to happen.
“You’ll see a wooden stool,” Mrs. Ford said as she set down the coffee mug and leaned forward to pick up a pen. “Sit there and wait for me.”
Inaya nodded and stood, hesitating as she glanced back at her book bag.
After scribbling something on the form, Mrs. Ford set the pen back down and started toward the divider herself.
Heart racing, Inaya quickened her steps and moved the thick curtain aside as she stepped into the photo studio. The room was murky and dark except for the sliver of light spilling from Mrs. Ford’s office.
Inaya looked around for a light switch, but the click of Mrs. Ford’s shoes stopped her. Inaya walked quickly toward the silhouette of a barstool and slid onto the chair a second before Mrs. Ford yanked open the curtain and stepped inside herself.
There was a popping and buzzing sound, and bright light spilled in Inaya’s direction, making her face burn uncomfortably. She heard the sound of the curtain being yanked closed, but she didn’t look in the direction of the sound.
Inaya was settled on the student I.D. chair now, and she had no choice but to take her school picture.
Anyway, it wasn’t her fault that the khimaar was completely ruined.
And even if it were, there was nothing Inaya could do about it now.
“Can you believe he asked me to stop wearing niqaab?” Veronica’s angry voice carried to the living room as Inaya stepped inside the apartment Monday afternoon.
“I know,” Veronica said, her voice slightly muffled as Inaya quietly closed the front door and locked it. “That’s what I was worried about when I married an Arab. They’re so weak in their religion. Astaghfirullah.”
Upon realizing she was alone, Inaya yanked the damp khimaar from her head and shrugged off the wrinkled jilbaab that she hadn’t bothered to button. After a day of walking bareheaded through the halls (and enjoying it), Inaya had hand-washed the head cover in a restroom sink before going home.
“What about Inaya?” Veronica said, the question halting Inaya’s steps toward her mother’s room to give salaams. “If I take off my face veil, how do I explain that to her?”
Veronica groaned. “Next thing you know, he’s going to ask me to start wearing colored hijabs.”
Silence followed for several seconds before Inaya heard her mother moan in exhaustion. “I know, ukhti,” Veronica said. “I’m not saying it’s haraam. I’m just scared he might ask me to take off hijab eventually.”
Inaya dragged herself to the kitchen, sadness weighing on her as she thought of her father. She wondered when her mother would take her to see him.
“I’m not overreacting,” Veronica said defensively. “Why should I uncover my face? Even if niqaab’s not obligatory, what’s the point of taking it off? I fear Allah, not the people.”
Inaya glanced at the clock. It was almost four o’clock, and she hadn’t even prayed Dhuhr, the early afternoon prayer, and it was almost time for Asr.
“Because that stupid Arab culture made Sa’ad ashamed of his wife.” Veronica’s tone was indignant. “And now I’m supposed to feel ashamed for practicing the Sunnah?” She huffed. “They can keep their on-off hijab crap to themselves.”
Inaya hurried to the bathroom in the hall and closed the door, shutting out her mother’s conversation.
“Bismillaah,” Inaya whispered, marking the start of her pre-prayer ablution. Inaya reached over the sink bowl and turned both knobs, releasing a thin stream of water into an upturned palm.
But even after mentioning Allah’s name, anxiety still knotted in her chest, and she felt the beginning of a migraine.
Had she really spent the entire day without hijab?
Inaya rubbed the water on both hands then filled a hand with water before bringing it to her nose and mouth. The pounding in her head made it difficult to keep track of the steps of wudhoo’, but she squinted her eyes in concentration.
Wash your right arm three times. Wudhoo! Wudhoo! Wash your left arm three times. Wudhoo! Wudhoo! The rhythmic chant that Veronica had sung and clapped with her nine-year-old daughter came back to Inaya right then. At the time, Islam was still new and confounding to Inaya, but she recalled enjoying “playing in the sink” before prayer each day. It was like being baptized over and over again.
As a child, Inaya had prayed to “Allah” by following her mother’s strange bowing and by muttering gibberish in an effort to imitate the foreign words her mother stumbled over. But Inaya never felt she got it right.
Veronica had told her daughter that God wasn’t Prophet Jesus, and Inaya thought, Okay, that makes sense. But how could Inaya pray to a God she couldn’t see? What was she supposed to think about if she couldn’t imagine “Allah” in real form?
The Unseen Creator that Veronica spoke of was the same God that Inaya had imagined when she said “The Father.” Why then was it so difficult for Inaya to erase from her mind the image of a white-haired man with long hair and a flowing beard?
After seven years of being Muslim, things were not as befuddled in Inaya’s mind, but there was still that lingering feeling that something was missing. It was as if her mother took off in a sprint and had grabbed Inaya’s hand and dragged Inaya along before Inaya knew where they were going. Inaya had felt that her legs were too weak and her breath too short as her energy steadily waned.
Then one day her mother snatched Daddy away too.
Inaya turned the faucet knobs, and the stream of water disappeared as the bathroom grew suddenly quiet. In the mirror above the sink, a sad girl stared back at Inaya.
Still, at sixteen years old, Inaya found that no motions of the Muslim prayer and no talks of an Unseen God—or even her mother’s promise of everlasting bliss “one day”— helped Inaya make sense of Daddy being snatched from their lives.
“Pretty brown eyes,” Chris used to sing to Inaya, “you know how much I love you.”
Inaya averted her gaze from her reflection. Why couldn’t Inaya have done something to make her father stay?
No, Daddy, don’t go. Don’t go!
Such simple words, a simple protest.
But Inaya had sat mute, a frozen smile on her face. She said nothing as her father kneeled in front of her and brushed her forehead with a kiss.
“It’s okay, Pretty Brown Eyes,” he’d said as he wiped her eyes. But Inaya hadn’t even known she was crying. “You’re Daddy’s gift.” He pinched her cheek playfully, but Inaya remembered how sad his eyes had looked that day.
“Is that you, Inaya?” Veronica called out as Inaya opened the bathroom door and stepped into the hall. A second later, Veronica stood opposite Inaya, Abdullah resting his head on his mother’s shoulder as she patted him rhythmically on the back.
You know how much I love you. The song Inaya’s father had sang to her was in his eyes when he’d said goodbye, and even now it made Inaya’s throat close in sadness.
Inaya forced a smile as she met her mother’s gaze and closed the bathroom door. “As-salaamu’alaikum,” Inaya said, offering the Muslim greeting of peace.
“Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Veronica replied, a tired smile on her face.
In the awkward silence that followed, Inaya saw the question in her mother’s eyes. She was wondering if Inaya had overheard any of the conversation.
“I didn’t know you were home,” Veronica said.
“I just got here,” Inaya lied. “But I had to rush to the bathroom.”
“Alhamdulillaah.” Veronica looked relieved as she praised God, and Inaya sensed that her mother was grateful that Inaya hadn’t come home while she was talking to her friend.
Veronica drew Inaya into a half hug, and Inaya inhaled the scent of breast milk and baby powder.
“Did you pray Dhuhr?” Veronica asked after she released Inaya.
“I’m about to now.”
“Good,” Veronica said as she hurried back down the hall toward her room. “I’ll pray with you,” she said over her shoulder. “I lost track of time.”
The first thing that Inaya saw when she walked into her room after prayer was a large Macy’s bag. Curious, Inaya walked to her bed and lifted it from the comforter before peering inside. There was an unwrapped gift box inside.
Inaya sat on the edge of her bed and carefully pulled out the box then set it on her lap. She held the sides of the top and shook it to release it from the bottom. Inside was a card with a picture of falling leaves on top of translucent white paper.
Inaya lifted the card and opened it. She recognized her stepfather’s script immediately.
Your mother told me you’re a Qur’an teacher now. Don’t worry. First days are always tough. You’re a bright girl, maashaAllah. Just be yourself and the children will love you, bi’idhnillah. Here’s something I hope will make you feel better.
The word Dad made Inaya feel distant momentarily. She already had a father. Why did Sa’ad and Veronica imagine he could be replaced?
The sound of paper crumpling interrupted Inaya’s thoughts as she removed the white paper and tossed it on her bed. There was the faint scent of new clothes as folded fuchsia cloth came into view.
Inaya set the box to the side and stood as she held the reddish-purple material in front of her.
A smile creased a corner of Inaya’s mouth, and tears welled in her eyes. Maybe Sa’ad would never be “Dad” to her, but that didn’t keep him from wedging a place for himself in her heart.
Inaya rushed to the mirror to try on the new khimaar. She would wear the hijab to Qur’an school every Saturday, she decided as she wrapped the cloth around her head. She tucked a corner under her chin and ran a palm over its softness. She liked how the color brought out her smooth complexion and brown eyes. She couldn’t keep from smiling at her reflection.
Inaya thought of school the next morning, and her heart dropped. Did she have the strength to put her hijab back on?
Did she even want to?
Next… Story 4 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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