“Sorry about yesterday,” Kayla said Tuesday morning as she turned off the ignition and put the car in park. “I should’ve waited for you to get your head cover instead of rushing to class.”
“It’s okay.” Inaya felt a sense of dread as she leaned forward to pick up the backpack she’d set at her feet. She didn’t want to talk about hijab right then.
“No, really.” Kayla frowned as she looked at her cousin. “I felt so bad when I saw you walking around without it.” She sucked her teeth. “We could’ve washed it or something.”
“Let’s just forget it, okay?” Inaya pulled the door handle and shoved the car door open, swallowing the frustration building inside. She wished Kayla would shut up.
Kayla got out the car and pressed the button to lock the doors after they closed them. “I know you’re probably pissed.” She sighed. “But I’m really sorry.”
Inaya dropped her book bag on the cement next to the car and tugged at the sleeves of her unbuttoned jilbaab. She slipped the garment off then kneeled to quickly unzip her bag and stuff the black bundle inside. She pulled a strap of her book bag over her shoulder as she stood.
Without the bulky over-garment, Inaya felt less constricted. The wide-legged jeans she wore were loose, but when she had gotten dressed that morning, she had trouble finding a shirt she liked. Now, the khimaar that her stepfather had bought covered her head and was draped low to conceal the bust of her fitting long-sleeve black shirt. But she still felt stifled. The fuchsia didn’t match anything she wore.
“I like your new look, by the way,” Kayla said with a smile.
Inaya grinned beside herself as she fell in step next to Kayla. “Thanks.”
Inaya’s heart pounded as she counted the steps to the bathroom. Inaya had already decided she would wear the khimaar to and from school—but not in the school building itself. She felt horrible about this decision, but she just couldn’t imagine being taunted and stared at each day.
Allah is Merciful, Inaya told herself. No sin is too great for Him to forgive.
At least that’s what her mother always said. Inaya didn’t know if that was true, especially as far as her own soul was concerned. But it’s what Inaya decided to believe. It was easier than thinking the alternative.
“Oh my God,” Kayla said in the bathroom after Inaya removed her head cover. They were standing in front of the mirrors, and Inaya was stuffing the cloth into her bag. “Are you really taking all that off?”
Annoyed, Inaya rolled her eyes. “Yeah, so what?”
Kayla threw up her palms in defense. “Chill. I don’t care what you do.” She shrugged. “I’m just surprised, that’s all.”
“Why?” Inaya said defensively. “You’re the one who said I looked like I’m going to a funeral.”
Kayla chuckled at the reminder, but her face grew concerned a moment later.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Kayla spoke in a low whisper as she leaned toward Inaya in front of the large mirror. “Can’t you get in trouble?”
Inaya responded by walking toward the bathroom exit. “Let’s go,” she said, her tone laced in irritation as she glanced over her shoulder to look at Kayla. “We’re going to be late to homeroom.”
In the hall, there was the sudden sound of droves of students rushing to class, and a smirk tickled a corner of Inaya’s mouth. Bareheaded, Inaya was invisible, just another student going to class. The sense of empowerment this gave her was intoxicating, and laughter crawled in her throat. It felt so good to be normal.
“Hey, Kayla,” a male voice called seconds after they emerged from the bathroom.
Kayla looked over her shoulder then broke into a grin. “Hey, Raymond!” she said with a wave, slowing her steps.
Inaya’s face grew warm, and she turned to follow Kayla’s gaze.
Raymond quickened his steps until he was next to Kayla. Inaya trembled in nervous excitement as she imagined how different—and attractive—she would look to the student ambassador. But her heart nearly stopped when she saw that he was holding someone’s hand.
“Lyrica,” Kayla said, a broad smile forming on her face. She pulled the girl into a hug, the girl still grasping Raymond’s hand.
Inaya turned away as Raymond smiled fondly at Lyrica. But in that brief moment, Inaya had seen enough to make her feel insignificant.
Lyrica’s rich brown skin glowed almost bronze, and her closely cropped hairstyle accented the model-like bone structure on her face. Lyrica stood at least three inches taller than Inaya and carried herself with a demeanor that exuded self-confidence and intelligence. A “Raymond Dirks for Student Council President” sticker was on her chest, drawing more attention to her attractive shape.
Inaya had to fight the urge to run back to the bathroom and put back on her khimaar.
“This is my cousin Inaya.” Kayla stepped to the side and placed a hand on Inaya’s shoulder.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Lyrica said, her wide smile brightening her face. She reached out to shake Inaya’s hand. “I’m Lyrica, an old friend of Kayla’s.”
Inaya forced a smile as she accepted Lyrica’s hand. She hoped she hadn’t pulled her hand back too soon. She just couldn’t stand the feel of the girl’s soft palm and thin fingers that sported several silver bands.
“And I’m Raymond,” the student ambassador said, reaching for Inaya’s hand.
The formal introduction took her aback, and her face grew warm as their hands touched, her hand limply in his. For a moment she wondered if she was taking this “no hijab” choice too far.
“Nice to meet you again,” Inaya said, a stiff smile on her face. She felt a burning urge for him to remember her right then.
He creased his forehead, his polite smile lingering. “You do look familiar…”
Kayla looked as if she wanted to say something, but Inaya hated her cousin for keeping quiet. Inaya didn’t want the burden of reminding him. She was hoping he would remember without her help.
“We met last week,” Inaya said with a confidence that sounded as if it belonged to someone else. “You thought I was Arab.”
Raymond’s face slowly registered recognition. “Oh…” The expression on his face was difficult for Inaya to read. “You’re the Muslim from Saudi Arabia?”
A tinge of guilt pinched Inaya’s chest. “Yes,” Inaya said, maintaining a smile. “The fundamentalist,” she added sarcastically.
Raymond laughed, and Inaya relaxed in that sound. He wasn’t judging her after all.
“Well,” he said, still smiling, “I didn’t recognize you. You look…” His voice caught for a moment as he held her gaze, the admiration in his eyes sending Inaya’s heart racing. “…different.”
Inaya averted her gaze and waved a hand dismissively. “It’s okay. I guess I don’t recognize me either.”
“You’re Muslim?” Lyrica said, her eyes widening in pleasant surprise.
As she met Lyrica’s gaze, Inaya felt a pang in her chest, and she knew at that moment, she would never like Lyrica, no matter how nice she might be.
“Yes,” Inaya said in as even a tone as her annoyance would allow.
“That’s awesome.” Lyrica’s eyes shined in sincerity. “I hope you don’t mind if I bombard you with questions,” Lyrica said with a laugh.
Lyrica grasped Raymond’s hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and Inaya found herself hating Lyrica for taking Raymond for granted.
“That’s fine,” Inaya said, her strained smile fading.
“Good,” Lyrica said as she smiled at Raymond briefly. “Because Raymond and I are completely fascinated by your religion.”
Lyrica punched Raymond playfully with her free hand. “But don’t let him near you unless I’m here.” The words made Inaya stiffen, her lips twitching in an embarrassed smile. “I don’t want him running off and finding God,” Lyrica said. “It’ll ruin our relationship.”
“Women.” Raymond shook his head, a pleasant expression on his face as he met Lyrica’s gaze. “They’re even jealous of religion.”
“I didn’t know Raymond was the religious type,” Kayla said, her eyebrows rising. “I would’ve never guessed.”
“Oh, he’s not religious.” Lyrica quickly brushed his cheek with a kiss. “I just want to keep it that way.”
The sound of the bell ringing prompted Raymond and Lyrica to turn quickly and start down the hall, still holding hands.
“Inaya, it was nice meeting you,” Lyrica shouted over her shoulder. She waved then blew a friendly kiss to Kayla, who did the same before rushing toward the staircase.
Groaning, Inaya shuffled behind Kayla, feeling completely uninspired to face the rest of the school day.
“I think it’s a toss-up,” Raymond said from where he sat next to Lyrica at the lunch table with Kayla, Inaya, and two of Kayla’s friends. He removed the plastic wrapping from the tuna sandwich he’d taken from a paper bag. “It’s either Nasra or Lyrica this year.”
Lyrica laughed with her lips closed as she swallowed the spoonful of pudding that she’d just put in her mouth. She waved the plastic spoon toward Raymond. “And why don’t you think you’ll win the Distinguished Student Award?” A smile played at her lips. “You won it your freshman year.”
“That was three years ago,” Raymond said, smiling affectionately at his girlfriend. “But I’m glad you haven’t lost hope in me.”
“They don’t pick the same student twice,” Kayla said before taking a sip of chocolate milk through a straw and looking toward Raymond. “It’s like an unwritten teacher code or something.”
Raymond and the other students chuckled, but Inaya only smiled. Her discomfort from earlier had loosened somewhat, but she still couldn’t bring herself to participate in the conversation.
“It’ll probably be Nasra,” one of Kayla’s friends said, boredom in her tone as she dipped a bundle of French fries in ketchup. “She’s Arab and Muslim. It’ll make the school look good.”
“Oh, come on, Beth,” Raymond said, his annoyed tone prompting Inaya to look in his direction. “I hate when people say stuff like that. It’s like the only people who ever earn their awards are White Anglo-Saxon men.”
“That’s not what I meant, Raymond,” Bethany said, her cheeks becoming flushed. “I’m just saying there’s this whole media campaign to make people nice to Muslims. I’m tired of it.”
Inaya winced. But she realized that, most likely, Bethany wasn’t directing the comment at her. Bethany had met Inaya only once before, last week when Bethany had sat with Kayla for lunch. She probably didn’t even recognize Inaya without hijab.
“Nasra is one of the smartest students in the school,” Raymond said. “If she wins, it’s because she deserved to, not because the school’s trying to win Brownie points.”
“But you can’t deny that the school considers things like that,” Lyrica said to Raymond. “Diversity influences their decisions.”
“So what if it does?” Raymond said, frowning as he set down his partially-eaten sandwich. “That doesn’t mean the person didn’t deserve to win.”
“Stop taking things so personally,” Bethany said, rolling her eyes. “I wasn’t talking about you.”
“Me?” Raymond glared at her. “This has nothing to do with me.”
“My point exactly.” Bethany huffed. “Gosh, you’re not even Muslim.”
“But if what you say is true,” Raymond said, “then you would be talking about me.”
“I agree,” Kayla’s other friend said, sitting up. She turned to Bethany. “We can’t call foul every time a non-White wins something. It’s not fair.”
Bethany slapped her hands on the table and stood. “I’m finished here.” She picked up some plastic food containers she’d eaten from and tossed them onto the tray.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” she said. “This whole country is turning into a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals. What happened to a good old-fashioned conversation?”
“What happened to good old-fashioned patience?” Kayla’s friend said.
Bethany glowered at her friend before lifting the tray and walking away.
“Whew,” Kayla said, laughing nervously once Bethany was out of earshot. “That was intense.”
Raymond grumbled something under his breath and shook his head. Lyrica leaned toward him and put her arm around his shoulder as she whispered something in his ear.
For several seconds, an awkward silence stifled any attempt at conversation.
“Sorry about that,” Kayla said.
When no one responded, Inaya looked up to find her cousin smiling apologetically at her.
Inaya creased her forehead. “Why are you sorry?”
Before Kayla could respond, Kayla’s friend spoke. “Well, whoever wins the Distinguished Student Award,” she said, “I’m happy for them. I don’t think there’s a higher award given at the school.”
Kayla nodded and smiled. “Good luck, Lyrica,” she said. “I think you deserve it.”
At these words, Raymond’s expression softened, and he grinned at his girlfriend. “I agree.”
One Saturday evening in early October, Inaya sat staring out the passenger-side window as Sa’ad drove through the quiet streets of the townhouse community where Chris Donald lived. Though Inaya understood why her mother wasn’t joining her on the visit, the knowledge did not erase the sadness Inaya felt at spending time with her father alone.
It was moments like these that Inaya found it difficult to understand why her mother’s decision to accept Islam could not have included her father too. Inaya knew that it wasn’t allowed for a Muslim woman to be married to a non-Muslim man, but why couldn’t her mother have been more patient? Perhaps if Veronica had only given Chris more time, they could have remained married.
But it was always all or nothing with Veronica, Inaya thought sadly. Where Veronica saw black and white, Inaya and Chris saw gray. Even Sa’ad had advised Veronica to be more flexible in her practice of Islam. Of course, Sa’ad was not thinking of his wife’s first marriage when he’d said this, but Inaya couldn’t help thinking of his words right then.
“Just relax and enjoy yourself,” Sa’ad said as he slowed the car in front of Chris’s townhouse.
Inaya turned to see her stepfather smiling at her, his olive complexion distorted by the laugh lines next to his eyes. At his warm expression, Inaya’s anxiety lessened. But she hadn’t realized that she was stressed.
She smiled and nodded hesitantly. She wasn’t so sure that relaxing was possible. But she would try to enjoy herself.
“I know all of this must be really confusing for you,” Sa’ad said as he put the car in park.
Inaya met his gaze with her forehead creased.
“Becoming Muslim so young, your parents’ divorce.” He chuckled, but there was a trace of melancholy in that sound. “Then an Arab stepfather.”
She averted her gaze. It was the first time Sa’ad had spoken so frankly with her. She didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry, Inaya.” The softness in his tone made her throat close. “I really am.”
Inaya knew she should say something in response, but she couldn’t find her voice.
“Just know if you need anything,” he said, “I’m here.”
She nodded, her gaze fixed on her folded hands.
“Thanks for the gift,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Sa’ad reached over and patted Inaya’s hands. “You’re welcome. I just wish I could give you something more. You deserve it, maashaAllah.”
Inaya didn’t feel as if she deserved anything, but she was grateful for the kind words.
“No,” she said as she shook her head. “You deserve more.” She hadn’t meant to speak her thoughts aloud, but it was too late. She had never told Sa’ad she felt bad that she wasn’t a good stepdaughter. She hated that she resented his presence when all he’d shown her was patience and kindness.
There was a pregnant pause.
Someone in the townhouse parted the curtains and peered outside.
“I better go,” Inaya said.
“Call me when you’re ready to come home.”
Inaya nodded as she adjusted the strap of her purse over her shoulder. She pulled the passenger handle and pushed open the door.
“You look beautiful in that hijab, maashaAllah,” Sa’ad said as Inaya stepped out the car.
The sides of Inaya’s mouth creased in a smile. “You have good taste.”
Sa’ad chuckled as Inaya shut the car door.
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” Sa’ad called out.
Inaya waved to her stepfather before she made her way up the path leading to her father’s home.
“Inaya!” Chris said as Inaya stepped inside. He immediately pulled her into a hug, and Inaya inhaled the smell of coffee and spices. She remembered waking up as a child to find her father sitting reading the newspaper, a steaming coffee mug and a slice of freshly baked spiced bread on the kitchen table in front of him.
Chris released Inaya then held her face in his palms, a soft expression on his face. “You still have those pretty brown eyes.”
Inaya grinned shyly and looked away, uncomfortable in the knowledge that along with her honey-colored skin, Inaya’s brown eyes were a trait she inherited from her mother.
Music played from a stereo, the upbeat sound thumping in time with her heart, and Inaya recognized the song as R&B, the rhythm and blues some of her friends in Saudi Arabia liked to listen to.
“Come on in, sweetheart.” Chris tugged on her hand, and Inaya followed him into the living room.
“How’s your mother doing?” Chris asked as they settled on the couch. A tray of snacks and drinks was on the floor table in front of them.
For a fleeting moment, Inaya forgot that her parents were divorced. Years ago, the question was one her father would ask if Veronica was not feeling well.
“She’s good.” Inaya lifted her chin and loosed the fabric there then pulled the khimaar from her head.
“Do you like your new school?” He poured juice into a glass then handed it to Inaya. “Your uncle Anthony tells me you and Kayla are together.”
“It’s okay,” Inaya said, setting the fuchsia hijab next to her before accepting the glass.
There was a brief pause as Chris poured himself some juice and Inaya sipped hers.
“Do the students treat you well?” he said. “As a Muslim, I mean.”
She nodded. “Everybody’s nice.”
“I’m happy to hear that.” He sighed, a slight smile on his face. “I was really worried about you.”
Inaya smiled awkwardly, unsure what to say. Her gaze fell on the large clock on the wall, and it was then that she remembered the sunset prayer. She stood suddenly.
“Is there anywhere I can pray?” She hoped the abrupt change in subject did not offend her father.
“Of course,” he said, standing immediately. “You can pray in my room.”
Inaya held her fuchsia scarf in her hand as she followed him down the hall.
“So if someone wants to become Muslim…” Chris said after Inaya rejoined him on the couch in the living room. His eyes were thoughtful, and it was then that Inaya remembered what Kayla had said.
“You didn’t know your dad is thinking about converting?”
Inaya met her father’s gaze curiously. Could it be that Kayla was not mistaken?
“…what do they need to do?”
Inaya reached for a packet of crackers and shrugged as she opened it. “They just need to say the shahaadah.”
Chris squinted as if trying to recall something. He pointed to Inaya. “That’s the testament of faith, right?”
“The testimony,” she said with a nod.
“Hmm…” a thoughtful smile lingered on his face for some time.
“You want to become Muslim?” Inaya smirked. She was tempted to tease him about it, but something held her back.
He chuckled uncomfortably. “I can’t say I want to…”
Inaya raised an eyebrow playfully. “Do you believe God is One?”
“I believed that all my life.”
“Not part of the Trinity?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe that. It doesn’t make sense.”
“So you don’t believe God is Jesus or anything like that?”
His lips formed a thin line momentarily. “No, not anymore.”
“Cool.” Inaya grinned, unable to conceal her excitement.
Chris tossed his head back in laughter. “Cool?”
“Yeah.” Inaya’s eyes widened in excitement. “Now our whole family will be Muslim.”
“Woe…” He put up a hand, laughter escaping his throat. “One step at a time.”
“Daddy.” Inaya grinned, an idea coming to her just then. “Why don’t you do it now? Tonight, I mean.”
He drew his eyebrows together. “Do what, sweetheart?”
“Say the shahaadah.”
His eyes grew large, but a pleasant expression remained on his face. “I don’t think I’m ready for that.”
Inaya frowned. “Why not? Don’t you believe in the Hereafter?”
“And that Islam is true?”
There was a thoughtful pause, but he nodded finally. “Yes, I do.” His voice was somewhat subdued, his gaze distant.
“Then what are you waiting for?” Inaya smiled broadly, unable to contain her anxiousness.
Chris met his daughter’s gaze, an amused expression in his eyes. “What if I’m not ready?”
Inaya contorted her face and chuckled. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
His eyebrows shot up, but there was humor in his eyes. “Oh, so you think this is just as easy as saying some words?”
She knitted her brows. “Yes…” Uncertainty clouded her expression. “Isn’t it?”
Chris held Inaya’s gaze briefly then shook his head. “If only it were.”
She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
Chris drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “If I become Muslim, my whole life has to change.”
He furrowed his brows and looked at Inaya as if seeing his daughter for the first time. “Sweetheart…” His voice conveyed a desire to put his thoughts in simple terms.
Inaya leaned forward, her eyes intent, but her mind was a storm of confusion. Why did he think becoming Muslim wasn’t as simple as testifying to the Oneness of God and belief in all His prophets?
Chris sighed. “Inaya, I have things I like to do. I…” He shook his head, apparently at a loss for words. “I have a fiancée. I have friends I’ve known since we were kids. I have a good job.”
Inaya narrowed her eyes in an effort to understand, but she felt only a vague sense of comprehension. “But what does that have to do with becoming Muslim?”
“Everything.” His eyes conveyed amazement at her lack of understanding. “Don’t you realize what becoming Muslim would mean for someone like me?”
Inaya stared blankly at her father.
“I could lose Dana,” Chris said. “I might be fired from my job. There’ll be so many things I’ll have to give up.” He drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “And I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
Chris forced laughter. “I’m used to being looked at as normal, sweetheart,” he said. “And as crazy as this may sound, I don’t want that to change.”
The word normal made Inaya think of her own desire to be invisible at school. It had even pushed her to remove her Islamic headdress.
Inaya averted her gaze, understanding her father’s concerns but not wanting to.
“I know you’re too young to understand all I’m saying,” he said with a sigh. “But trust me. This isn’t a simple decision. It’ll mean sacrificing a lot more than I’m ready to.”
Inaya wanted to tell him that she herself wasn’t doing so well, but he spoke before she could say anything.
“Believe it or not,” he said with a chuckle, “you’re my inspiration.” He smiled, his eyes on the ceiling briefly.
“When I see how strong you are,” he said, “I’m so proud. And I think, ‘That’s my girl.’” He nodded. “And I tell myself, ‘One day, I’ll be like that.’”
An awkward smile formed on Inaya’s face and she dropped her gaze to the crackers in her hand. She wondered what her father would think if he knew the truth.
Next… Story 5 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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