The following is an excerpt from UZ Short Story Collection by Umm Zakiyyah:
To anyone else, today was an ordinary day, even if a bit dreary. The ground was wet from a fresh rain. The brown-green blades of grass glistened despite their imminent death. Dirt blotched the untended grass in patches, making Mohsina think of the back of her father’s head. His ever-growing bald spot, the color of aged chocolate like the rest of him, often made Mohsina think of the shameful bareness she felt whenever she walked into her social-psychology class. The professor grunted every time. And it stung every time. Though she was never quite sure if the sound of unambiguous disapproval was because she was suddenly present or because he was suddenly upset at the moment she was present. But it made her tug uncomfortably at her plain, black shoulder abaya and run a hand self-consciously over the cloth of her off-white hijab, like her father would run his calloused fingers over that bald spot whenever he was nervous or painfully self-aware all of a sudden.
“Bah,” Dr. Sherman would say in terse annoyance as he flapped his hand dismissively at Mohsina’s insistent, even if meek, protests against his Islamophobic tirades.
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“It’s not because of Islam that so many Muslim women suffer,” she would blurt out before he gave her permission to speak. She feared if she waited for him to notice her reluctantly raised hand and point to her, she wouldn’t be able to say anything in response, not only because the gray-haired professor was bigoted and closed-minded, but also because Mohsina herself might lose the nerve. “Islam doesn’t allow men to enslave girls and sell them as virtual sex slaves into unwanted marriages.”
“You are naïve,” Dr. Sherman would say in a tone so subdued that Mohsina would squirm and look away from him. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m Muslim,” she would say, her voice shaking as she tried to speak more loudly, more confidently. “I should know.”
“Yes, you should,” he would say. “But you don’t.” Then he would look at her, eyes squinted from beneath the bushy gray-brown of his eyebrows. “Where is your family from again?”
Mohsina would swallow hard and avert her gaze. She hated this question. It was almost rhetorical. It was a cruel, even if subtle, announcement to all her white and brown-skinned “real” American classmates that she was inauthentic, an imposter. She was born in America and held a blue passport just like they did.
Why should she be put on the spot? “Where is your family from?” she wanted to ask the pale-skinned, blue-eyed professor with dirty blond hair and an overflowing beard; the almond-skinned, dark brown-eyed girl with braids plaited to her scalp and who always kept an iPod hidden on her lap; the tanned, used-to-be-white-skinned redhead who annoyingly picked at the blackheads on her chin—and the rest of the arrogant “Americans” who studied in furtive glances Mohsina’s creamy-coffee complexion and ebony eyes, and could only guess at the length and texture of Mohsina’s dark black hair tucked and hidden beneath the ubiquitous hijab.
No, Mohsina’s parents had not been Americans when their international flight landed in New York twenty years ago. They had been armed only with student visas and pathetic hopes and dreams for something better than “back home” (though that “something better” remained an elusive, if not mysterious, concept to their daughter even nineteen years after her birth only miles from the Statue of Liberty, a birth that allegedly represented the bulk of that “something better”).
Mohsina’s parents had exchanged the student visas for work visas and the work visas for green cards and the green cards for the coveted blue passports. But their only mistake, in Mohsina’s view, was exchanging their student-work-green idealism for the bitter reality they inadvertently signed their children up for even before they were born.
But, yes, Mohsina’s parents were American, just like the families of these snobby students, whose parents’ parents’ great grandparents likely arrived in a less flattering mode of transport than Mohsina’s, though with painstakingly similarly stupid ideas and tragic realities, the former or latter description most fitting depending on whether they arrived in the upper or lower deck.
“Why does it matter? Where we’re from?” Mohsina would manage to say in response to the professor’s never-ending question that challenged the validity of her nationality, the validity of her existence. And she knew her voice was shaking, but her hand was also trembling, and she didn’t like that. She hated that, actually. She hated that she let these self-righteous people get to her. “It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.”
“It should matter, and it does matter,” Dr. Sherman would say before going on with his tirade as if Mohsina hadn’t interrupted him at all, as if Mohsina wasn’t sitting there at all, as if Mohsina didn’t exist at all.
The dull rubber heal of Mohsina’s shoe sank low into a patch of mud she didn’t see after she had stepped over another. She pulled her foot up carefully and frowned only briefly as she glanced down to see that the dark brown muck had risen over the sides of her slip-on shoe and soiled a thick white sock. At least it’s only one foot ruined, she thought to herself as she pulled at her heavy book bag and readjusted it on her shoulder.
A cold wetness plopped on the tip of her nose, and Mohsina instinctively swatted at it, inadvertently scratching the skin of her upper lip. When three more, then five more plopped on her cheeks, it became obvious to her that it was only rain. She looked up, her mouth agape as she shielded her eyes from the bright blur peering behind the darkening clouds. Her face was slapped with at least a dozen more, as if punishment for becoming annoyed in the first place. She turned her gaze back to the path in front of her and swallowed the drops that had fallen on her tongue, surprised by their sweet, salty taste.
“We are not like these selfish, reckless people,” her mother had told her a month before. “We don’t marry for love. We don’t marry for our own foolish desires. We marry for our families. We marry for our cultures. We marry for Allah.” Her mother had said the Creator’s name with such determined emphasis that Mohsina almost believed her. A pang of guilt had stabbed Mohsina, and she felt ashamed of herself. Who was she to choose love? Who was she to have foolish desires? Who was she to disrespect her family, insult her culture, and turn away from Allah?
“But he’s Muslim,” Mohsina had said, her voice a cross between an unabashed plea and a pathetic whine. “Can’t you just consider him? How is that selfish?”
The slap was so quick, so intense that Mohsina just stood still, blinking in disbelief as the solid white wall behind her mother’s angry, contorted face seemed to tip to one side.
“Who are you to question your parents?” her mother shot back, apparently unaware that Mohsina was struggling to overcome dizziness. “Do you know how much dowry he is paying us for you? Do you have any idea?”
Islam doesn’t allow men to enslave girls and sell them as virtual sex slaves into unwanted marriages.
“Or are you so drunk with all these stupid American ideas that you’ve forgotten who you are, where we come from?”
Why does it matter? Where we’re from?
“You are nothing without your family. You are nothing without your culture. You are nothing without your honor.”
It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.
This morning, Mohsina had turned off her cell phone and left it on the bus that rounded the college campus and on its fifth stop dropped her off in front of the tall, daunting, brick humanities building in which Dr. Sherman taught. As she wiped her muddied shoe against the concrete of the sidewalk that early, dreary morning, Mohsina wondered if Dr. Sherman would grunt at exactly 7:58, the time she usually walked into class.
The rain came down harder and soaked the sleeves of her abaya, but it was the clothes beneath—and in her book bag—that she was most worried about. But Mohsina had been standing on the corner behind the university parking garage for only two minutes when the familiar car pulled up and slowed to a stop beside her, its windshield wipers working furiously against the pouring rain.
She opened the passenger-side door and got in without a word and only mumbled her reply to the salaams. Sadness tugged at her heart as she considered what she was giving up by shutting that car door, pulling the seatbelt around her, and snapping it firmly in place.
It should matter, and it does matter.
Oddly, this made her smile, just a bit. She would miss her bigoted professor and her father’s bald spot and her mother’s uneven temper. But she would write them, maybe a year later, when this was all over and their hearts could only remember the good, when they would wish they could do it all over again and hear her, really hear their daughter when she spoke to them.
In the letter, Mohsina planned in her head, she’d say, “Thank you.”
Yes, she’d say, “Thank you.” And why not?
She would say kind words, just like the ones in Mohsina’s favorite song “Thank You for Hearing Me” by Sinead O’Connor.
Thank you, thank you for helping me
Thank you for breaking my heart
Thank you for tearing me apart
Now I’ve a strong, strong heart
But by then—Mohsina let herself imagine life beyond the rushed ceremony with the sympathetic American imam whom her parents refused to even talk to because he wasn’t from their country—she would probably have a bundle of new life in her arms (a son, maybe a daughter, it didn’t matter) whom she could present as a peace offering, as their own flesh and blood, to say, “See? It does matter. It should matter.”
Tears filled her eyes at this thought, but she let herself imagine the shock on her parents’ faces after they learned of Mohsina’s own “arranged marriage.” It would have been identical to the one they had planned for her, except this one had been arranged by Mohsina herself—with the support of her future husband and some “real” American Muslims—and after a zillion failed attempts at diplomacy with her own family, who coupled their self-righteousness with not the least bit of respect for what Allah really said marriage was supposed to be.
“Why did you choose America, of all places?” Mohsina had asked, exasperated after a particularly rough day of anti-Muslim bullying when she was in middle school.
“We couldn’t live back home anymore,” her father had told her, distant sadness in his eyes. “Times were tough, and it was destroying us. We had to take a chance and start life over again. We wanted better for ourselves. We wanted better for our future children.”
Mohsina wiped the unfallen tears from her eyes and leaned back in the passenger seat and exhaled in a single breath. It felt good to know that her father already understood, even if he didn’t know it just yet—and wouldn’t know it fully until Mohsina herself reappeared with the “blue passport” of her life firmly in her hands.