by Hina Ahmed
Mariam and three of her college friends made their way home from a rejuvenating
fall day at a pumpkin festival buried deep in town, where there were no near gas stations in sight, or the faintest glimpse of a single convenient store. Instead, the land was covered in large farm-houses that one would imagine to have filled with soothing fireplaces and the kind of sofas a person could dissolve into on those frosty, cold, upstate, New York days. Land that was covered with lounging cattle, and ravenous tractors belonging to the fervent farmers who owned them. The terrain had a gentle, quiet, steady breath as it rested in the bosoms of the Earth’s rolling hills, bathing in luscious, sun-kissed colored leaves that rhythmically danced through the sky.
As they drew closer to her home, Mariam’s carefree spirit slowly began to subside
as she subtly held her breath while engaging in small talk with her friends, while a
nervousness festered within her. “That’s the house, right there.” Mariam pointed with a
finger that felt strength less, as her facial expressions became filled with tension and
conflict. I hope they don’t want to come inside, maybe they do, maybe I ought to invite
them in. I don’t want to be a thoughtless friend. A thoughtful friend would invite her
friends in. I should invite them in. But, I have not notified Ummi and Abu… I am not sure I should, they are just friends, it is not a big deal, so what that they are here. But no, maybe Ummi and Abu need to prepare themselves, prepare their home, ah… no, it
doesn’t matter Mariam, just relax, just relax.
Mariam’s friend Adam pulled up onto the steep driveway, accelerating with the
extra force needed to make it up her hill in his sleek, black, brand new SUV. The house
looked on to its new visitors with arms that were crossed and eyes that were discerning
and filled with a flare of caution, as it sought to both protect and resist an unsolicited
The house presented itself to be perfectly sanitized; the kind of sanitization that is
rooted in a deep fear to the exposure of filth and dirt, and to the remotest thought of the splattering of a tarnishing. The lawn of the home was pristinely groomed, with its finely cut blades of grass, and the kind of greenery that exists from years of artificial fertilizer treatments. The house sat perched on a slight rolling hill, with its buttermilk painted vinyl walls, rusty red shutters, and white front porch; a classic image of an archetypical colonial home found in the regions of upstate New York. The large window in the center of the home stood out starkly to its onlookers, with its cage like design of white, wooden pieces crossing one another, stripping away the kind of transparency one would seek through gazing into a glass window, instead illiciting feelings of dark secrecy to its onlookers.
“Thanks for the ride Adam,” Mariam said in an excitable manner to disguise her
rumblings of conflicted desires, as she leaned in toward him after unbuckling her seatbelt. “You know you guys have come this long way, you might as well come in for a bit,” Mariam stated abruptly in the hopes of turning off her inner neurosis.
“That would be nice. I would like to say hello to Mrs. Khan,” Laura stated in her
calm, yet eager voice, presumptuously assuming all other members in the car would
agree, as she briskly opened the car door, while indeed the others did follow.
As they walked up the driveway, Mariam decided to take her friends in through
the garage door that was left open for the kinds of visitors that were family. Her entrance through the garage door meant that she was not an outsider, but an insider of her home.
“As-salamu-alaykum,” Mariam stated as she entered the door arriving on the
recently polished marble steps of their kitchen floor. It was a typical Sunday afternoon in the Khan household, as her parents were attempting to keep one another company, in front of the television set, where they often found emotional comfort amidst the stories of their Pakistani soap operas; a safe place to show both their desire and vulnerability, a soap opera sanctuary to fill their emotional voids through experiencing the emotional lives of the characters on the screen. Alas, feeling an intimacy they both longed to feel with one another, but were both too afraid to actually reveal.
“Walaikum asalaam,” Mariam’s mother greeted as she looked on from the single
sofa in the family room. Her face was saddened and her eyes looked empty. The kind of
emptiness that comes from years of surrendering to a hopeless marriage and from the
disappointment that comes from a loss of expectations of the kind of daughter she always wanted Mariam to be.
“I have brought some friends home with me today,” Mariam attempted to state
quickly and nonchalantly in the hopes of masking the apprehension that made it hard for her to breathe, as she sought to hide behind the kitchen counter, where her fitted and revealing outfit of yoga pants and plunging, white, v-neck of a sweater, which overtly exposed the bareness of her chest, and the black straps of her sports bra, would hopefully become less visible from the scanning and judgmental gaze of her religious father, who sat across from her mother on the opposing family room couch.
Mrs. Khan looked alarmingly at Mariam and the group of friends that followed
behind her. How could she not have warned me that they were coming? I hate when she surprises me like this. Mrs. Khan first turned her attention toward Laura, as she stumbled in behind Mariam and chose to stand right next to her at the kitchen counter. This made Mariam feel surprisingly territorial of her space. Laura’s presence felt grandiosely encroaching to Mariam, as if she represented the occupation of the British Empire in her little South Asian home.
Mrs. Khan on the other hand, had a very juxtaposing experience of Laura. Her look softened upon the immediate retrieval of Laura’s unadulterated face. She had met Laura before and found her to be sweet, flexible, and professional; the kind of woman she secretly hoped that her feisty, stubborn, and unconventional daughter could be more like. Laura stood next to Mariam behind the emerald, green marbled kitchen counter, as she looked onto Mariam’s parents with confidence and comfort.
Mrs. Khan’s eyes then caught a glimpse of Jessica’s face, who stood shyly behind Laura. Like Laura, Mrs. Khan had met Jessica before. Jessica was sweet like Laura, but seemed to lack the same certainty, confidence, and security she always admired in Laura. Perhaps more importantly, Mrs. Khan was threatened by the mysterious smiles Jessica was akin to giving, and of eyes that spoke with less clarity, and more ambiguity than those of Laura’s. However, Jessica’s outward presentation, like Laura’s, was clean, composed, and well put together. Her hair was always combed, her clothes were always ironed, and her outfits were always artistically matched. Jessica, like Laura put time into her grooming, the way Mrs. Khan wished her own daughter would.
It was indeed in the next moment, that Mrs. Khan’s facial expressions shifted from those of admiration, acceptance, and approval of Mariam’s friends, to those of fear, vengeance, and anger, as the space between her eyebrows decreased, her eyes began to pierce, and a frown surfaced over her lips. Mrs. Khan saw the glimpse of a bald, black, tall, head that although, sought to hide behind Jessica’s face, could not escape the eyes of Mrs. Khan that were all of a sudden flooded with resentment toward Mariam. Mrs. Khan sprung out of the comforts of her single, leather sofa chair and willfully made her way through the corridor and up the stairs to the private chambers of her bedroom.
Mrs. Khan shut her bedroom door fiercely and sought refuge on her bed, where she fell into fetal position and cried uninhibitedly into the softness of her pillow. Countless thoughts raced through her mind. Mariam could have at least called me, at least sent me a text message notifying me of the namahrem (unlawful) male who would be entering my home. I felt naked in front of him without my hijab. She stripped me bare. How could she not know better? What has happened to her Islam? Has she forgotten she is Muslim? Has she forgotten who she is?
What about the decade of Islamic school classes that I drove her to and from every Sunday afternoon? What about the daily ritualistic Quranic Surah reciting I did with her every night before she went to bed? What about the life, this life that I have sacrificed for her? In the name of Islam, the sacrifices I have made for her, for her and her Islam?
The marriage I have stayed in, the obedient daughter I was for my mother…what for? For the birth of a child that is carving her own way, her own path? How dare she carve out a world for herself in the ways I never did. How dare her, How dare I. Shame on me for following my Easternism and never questioning it. Where is my own Westernism? Why won’t I allow it to speak to me? How foolish I am. How foolish I am.
As the thoughts rolled through her mind, so did her tears of torment as they fell in between the crevices of her lips, where she allowed herself for the first time, to lick them, taste them, and ultimately swallow them raw.
Mariam and her friends slowly began to move from behind the protection of the counter and cautiously started to navigate through the kitchen, with Mariam as their lead. Mariam paused at the boundary between the kitchen and the family room, where her and her friends stood to be seen. Mr. Khan rose from being sunk in his seat, as his face lifted with genuine interest and curiosity. “Nice to meet you,” he sheepishly mumbled, as was his way with everyone he came across in his life. Mr. Khan sought nothing more than to be left alone, for being seen brought back a haunting past of memories filled with shame, guilt, and a yearning for a retribution that he knew nobody could truly give him.
“Ok, let’s head upstairs, I am excited to be able to show you all my room,” Mariam said. Mariam felt a swiftness within her to move her friends through the house in such a manner as to bring them directly to her bedroom, a space she hoped would be free of the boundaries that existed in the spaces of all the other areas of her family’s home, a space where the internal tension of the home could diffuse, and she could finally breathe comfortably since their arrival.
Mariam and her troupe marched through the corridor from the family room. “That is a beautiful living room,” Jessica said, as Mariam attempted to hurriedly navigate them upstairs, causing her friends to at best be able to steal glances into the private domain of the living room designed for the designated guests of Mr. and Mrs. Khan’s future in-laws that Mariam’s mother always spoke of, but whom Mariam had yet to ever meet.
Mariam and her friends made their way up the white, soft, thickly carpeted steps, passing Mariam’s brother’s bedroom of love and acceptance, passing her parent’s bedroom of silence and self-loathing, passing her younger sister’s bedroom of protection and perfection, and lastly passing her youngest sister’s bedroom of scented perfumes and gluttonous glory of accessories, arriving finally at her bedroom, at the very end of the hall, away from everyone else’s.
The sun shined in through Mariam’s two large windows that were completely free of the blinds that covered the rest of the house. Arabic calligraphy graced the surface of her walls in the form of versus from the Quran on silver and copper plates, as well as in the form of art expressed in the drawings of swirling dervishes, crouched men praying on their prayer rugs, and rising pelicans starring into the horizon.
On her wall hung an Islamic prayer rug, displayed as a piece of art to simply be observed, but never to be touched, or prayed on. On the side of her room stood Mariam’s bookshelf, holding her favorite political author’s such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Norman Finklestein. Most of her books were of historical and political significance, pertaining to the struggles of Palestinian Diaspora and of Muslim voices left unheard. Several other shelves were full of novels and literature by South Asian authors: Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Lee, Hamid Mosin, and literary scholar Gaytri Spivak. On the center of Mariam’s floor was her bright, orange yoga mat serving the needs of her daily ritual of sun salutations every morning, where her mat faced the strength of the sun.
“I really love your yoga ritual,” Laura gently stated as she made her way into the room and drew in closer to Mariam’s window, looking at the large tree and its falling leaves under the sun-filled sky, feeling at peace and in harmony with the world outside Mariam’s home and with the world inside it, as if she belonged there. Jessica blindly followed Laura, smiling shyly, too overwhelmed with her feelings of romanticized adoration for the multi-cultural use of Mariam’s space to say much of anything. Both Laura and Jessica felt entranced by a mystical world that they found themselves immersed in, associating it with the tell-tales of the Orient as they gazed blissfully outside of Mariam’s bedroom window.
Adam walked in behind Jessica, in the same way he first entered the home, he was cautious and reluctant, as the gnawing feeling within him would not disappear. I should not be here. Something about this feels intrusive. I need to leave, I need to leave right now. Adam surrendered to his thoughts of wrongdoing and hurriedly began to walk away from Mariam’s room.
Both Laura and Jessica continued to look out of Mariam’s bedroom window with relaxed faces of ease and joy, as Mariam silently witnessed Adam’s departure. Although Adam had a multi-layered identity as she did, all she saw was his Americanism, causing her to ask herself a series of questions. How did he know it was culturally inappropriate for him to be in here? How did he know the right thing to do was to leave? Where was he going to go? Would he sit next to my parents? Where would he sit in relation to them? What would he say? The overwhelming feelings that surmounted from these thoughts caused Mariam to seek solace in the space between Laura and Jessica as she consciously chose to join them in their world of peaceful satisfaction.
Mrs. Khan slowly gathered her grief-ridden self and made her way out of her bed and into the bathroom to make wadu. She looked at herself in the mirror and then quickly turned her gaze downward, terrified by the pain caused by seeing her own reflection, she instead looked at the clear, pure water that poured out of the faucet and made its way down the drain, running her fingers through it, making sure it was the perfect temperature to touch the rest of her body. She began her ritualistic washing process by rinsing her mouth three times while reciting, ‘la-ilaha-illallah muhammadur-Rasulullah’ there is not God but Allah, and Prophet Muhammed (Peace be Upon Him) is the last Prophet.
Her inner voice grew louder and louder with the recitation of the words, as the strength within her, calmed her heavy heart and allowed her to regain composure, and she moved toward rinsing her nostrils, blowing forcefully outward, and releasing all of her inner toxins as she watched them wash away into the drain. Next, she drew the palms of her hands to her face, allowing the water to wash away her tears of unfulfilled dreams, as she felt a sense of renewal, and was now able to look at herself in the mirror again. After she completed washing the other parts of her body, she was ready to supplicate to the one who was the true relinquished of her pain; her Lord, her Allah.
Adam made his way downstairs walking cautiously across the boundary from the corridor to the family room. Mr. Khan still sat silently on the couch, unmoved, staring emptily at the television screen before him and Adam almost wondered if he was dead or alive. Mrs. Khan had returned from her bedroom, this time, Adam noted, with a covering on her head.
“Come on in,” Mrs. Khan said invitingly, with a bright, smiling face, as Adam made his entrance into the family room. Mr. Khan, readjusted himself on the couch to show the welcoming of the young gentleman into their family room. Adam sat a seat away, near Mr. Khan and directly across from Mrs. Khan. He was a young, black, American man, of both African and Indian descent wearing an ironed white shirt, and formal khaki dress pants, professional enough for the approval of Mrs. Khan. He sat with his hands clasped gently in his lap, his right ankle crossing his left, as he lowered his gaze modestly when speaking to Mrs. Khan, and more willingly looked Mr. Khan in the eyes as he gently sunk into the comforts of the sofa.
“So, what exactly do you do?” asked Mr. Khan in a direct and curious manner, as Mrs. Khan looked at him hopefully as a South Asian mother would toward a future son-in law. Although Adam was of both African and Indian descent, all Mrs. Khan saw was his South Asianness. In this way, Adam had become the fulfillment of Mrs. Khan’s desperate fantasy of the kind of man she would welcome into the family room, of the kind of man who would sit next to her husband on the couch, and of the kind of man her daughter could someday marry.
“I am a librarian at the University, I work with Mariam’s friend Laura.” Adam stated gently, yet confidently. “Oh that is wonderful,” said Mrs. Khan, her face shining with approval. “How did you get to know Mariam?” Mrs. Khan, curiously asked. “Oh, I met her through Laura, who also works in the University with me,” Adam stated. “Oh yes, Mariam, has met so many of her friends through the University, she really never wants to grow out of that place!” Mrs. Khan said excitingly, showing both an admiration for her daughter’s intellectual curiosity, as well as a repulsion to it. Adam smiled at her. “Well, I guess since Mariam’s boyfriend is also a student there, it makes sense for her to hang around there often.” Adam said casually.
Mrs. Khan’s face froze as if an iceberg had come collapsing down on her. Her pleasant disposition now vanished, and a look of overwhelming distraught consumed her, as she was brought back to the heartbroken space of her tears in her bedroom. Adam unclasped his hands, uncrossed his ankles, and began to shift uneasily in his seat. “Perhaps, I should go and check on the ladies and see if they are ready to go,” Adam said, thinking about nothing other than to escape a world of internal tension as he had done earlier in Mariam’s bedroom.
As Adam made his way down the corridor, Mariam and her friends laughed lightly amongst themselves while they made their way down the stairs. Adam felt a sense of relief from looking at them. When they made their way back into the family room, Mariam immediately noticed her mother’s headscarf and a bold look of hostility and anger that was painted in hues of black and orange over her face, as if she was a crouching tiger ready to attack her.
Ugh. Something serious just happened. Ummi looks so angry, I should have told her Adam would be with us before bringing him and my friends inside. I should have given her time to veil. I wonder if it was something Adam said to her about me after he left my room. I should have grabbed a hold of Adam and brought him back to my room when I saw him leave my room, as opposed to allowing him to speak to Ummi and Abu in the absence of my presense. This is all my fault. Ummi’s anger is all my fault.
“Well, guys, now that you have seen the inside of the house, why don’t we head outside,” Mariam eagerly stated wanting to seek nothing but escape from her inner dialogue of torment.
“Ok, what just happened in there?” Mariam exclaimed frantically as she looked directly at Adam for an explanation. Adam looked shaken, as if he got caught committing a grave crime. “I don’t know, I don’t know what happened.” Adam stated, with little certainty and hopes of diffusing the question. “No, something happened. Can you tell me everything that you said to my parents, everything?” Mariam begged to know. Adam felt nervous, too nervous to speak clearly. Mariam looked on at him, holding her breath.
“Oh, I don’t know. We were just chitchatting casually. Your parents asked how I knew you and I said it was through our mutual friendship with Laura and that I see you around the University often.” Adam paused momentarily, lost in thought, wondering how honest he ought to be with Mariam. “And then…I told them that I saw you around the University often because that is where your boyfriend is also student.” Adam stated, feeling like a heavy weight had just been lifted off his shoulders.
Mariam looked at him with a look of disbelief and frustration. “Adam, how could you? You know my parent’s are traditional South Asian Muslims. Saying I have a boyfriend to them would feel like a tornado hit the religiosity of their upbringing.” Mariam said. Adam looked saddened. “I am sorry Mariam, I didn’t know. It just slipped.” Adam’s internal world spoke loudly within him, in ways that were impossible for him to escape this time. How could I reveal such a heavy secret with no sensitivity to the words that came out of my mouth? Why didn’t my Indian-ness shield my desire to speak in the moment of my revelation? I am constantly reminded of the power of my own Americanism in light of my efforts to resist it. The American Empire has successfully colonized me. How foolish I am. How foolish I am.
Mariam felt the brightness of the day fading behind her, as feelings of guilt, shame, and regret flooded the broken walls of her inner world. How could I be so foolish? How could I have assumed that my friends would know what to say and what not to say? Should I have had a conversation with them on what they could and could not say in my home? Is that how dualistic my identity is? Do I want them to see the extremes of my dualities? Perhaps, they have their own? Perhaps.
How Muslim am I? How Pakistani am I? How Eastern am I? Have I chosen my Western allies over my Eastern mother? How could I have been so insensitive to Ummi Jaan? I should have told her, I should have told her we were coming with a namahrem (unlawful male). I should have given her an opportunity to put on her headscarf, but instead I talked myself into thinking that it didn’t matter, that her religiosity didn’t matter. But it matters, she matters. How dare I. How dare I talk myself out of a sensitivity that is the essential cornerstone to my Eastern values. How foolish I am. How foolish I am.
Mariam looked at the sharp, green blades of grass touching her bare feet. Blades of grass that she wanted nothing more than to sink her feet deeper into. Deep enough for them to eventually disappear. But the blades were not long enough to completely engulf her, or sharp enough to cause her the pain she felt she deserved. She was more visible now under a sun that burned her, than she had ever been before.