“Bro, this queer’s fleeked out or some shit.”
Ameer had understood only two words from that sentence: “this” and “or”.
The others must have been in a vernacular unfamiliar to him. After all, he was aware that American English varied by region. When he had heard the sentence in class, whispered schemingly from one classmate to another, he had scrambled to write it down. He only hoped that he had spelled it out correctly: “brow this kweerz flekout or semshet”. He had hoped to look the words up later.
Did this sentence even have a predicate?
But now was not the time for study. The call for Evening Prayer had been made, and afterwards the Elders would be gathering for the jalsa in the guest room. He went to the sink to make wudu’, or ablution, and then descended the stairs for prayer with his siblings and the guests who had already arrived. He greeted each person present with a firm handshake, a kiss on the cheek, and a kiss on the right shoulder. With marvelous precision, the men assembled in solid rows, facing east, as the foremost (and oldest) of them announced “Allaaaaaaahu Akbar…”
The jalsa began once everyone had been seated. The circular seating arrangement was as follows: the center of the gathering was Ameer’s father, Maalik al-Qarawi, ibn Abdel Kareem. To his immediate left and right sat the Elders of the tribes, followed by the eldest sons and the older boys. Ameer sat among the eldest sons, for though his father had older sons from his previous wives, all of them lived abroad. Ameer was the oldest of those in the country.
Maalik ibn Abdel Kareem al-Qarawi began: “Peace be upon you all. We thank Allah that you have joined us in good health.”
An Elder responded, “Oh Abu Hamza (father of Hamza), you are most gracious to welcome us into your home.”
“We are honored to have you with us,” said Maalik. This was the cue to initiate the topics of this jalsa’s discussion.
“We are at Allah’s mercy,” said another Elder, “for we are burdened by the unfortunate circumstances of Abu Aziz al-Shubi. As you are aware, his family…”
A woman’s voice called from the stairway above. An older boy immediately called out to the youngest one who’d not yet reached adolescence: “Go! Answer the call.” The youngest one hustled up the stairs and then returned with a metallic tray of tea cups, a warm pot, and assortments of sweets and mixed nuts. He approached each member individually, beginning with the Elders, and offered them humbly. “Tafaddal ya ‘Aam”, he would say with each offering, and each man would take a cup and some refreshments, replying with “Mashkoor y’ibni” (Thank you, my son).
To Ameer, these proceedings were ordinary. The rigid formalities, tacit rhetoric, and implied directives which would astonish an outsider were a part of his daily life. What certainly wasn’t a part of his daily life was what he saw in first period the next morning.
“Stop! Stop…Talking!” bellowed a bespectacled old woman at her flailing class. She might as well have just left the room entirely, for she seemed to have not the slightest effect upon her students.
“Matthew! Sit down. This is my last warning! Ellie? Ellie! Class!”
“Hey camel-kid,” sneered a seething face which seemed to be addressing Ameer. “You smell like a donkey’s ass.”
Ameer knew what “smell” was, but the rest he couldn’t understand, at least not in that context. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a compliment.
Another freckled face joined in, his teeth gnashing with every splattering syllable. “Yeah browny,” he said. Nearby, a chair fell over to the erupting glee of squealing children. “Don’t you have a whore to stone to death or something? Some ninja who accidentally showed her toenail?”
“Gaaaaa Hahe hwAH!” answered his “smell” friend.
This was Ameer’s third day in class. On his first day at Merriman Middle School, he had spent the entire time in a counselor’s office taking tests. On the second day, he had gone from classroom to classroom entirely unnoticed. This was the third day, and the first time that anyone other than his third period teacher had addressed him directly. And considering he was the only foreign student at Merriman Middle School (excluding some Hispanic kids and a Filipino), it was astonishing that it had taken so long.
“Go take a shower, towel-head.”
Third period was better. At least for a while.
The math teacher, Mr. Seymour, had written a problem on the board.
“Now, class, I will give you one minute to solve this problem. When you think you know the answer, please raise your hand.”
As the other students scribbled fervently into their notebooks (except for a few who put their heads down), Ameer felt puzzled. Before lifting his pencil, he had already figured that the answer to the problem was 46. He raised his hand.
“No questions now, please. Do you best.”
“Mister Seymour, I know,” said Ameer. “I have answer.”
Mr. Seymour frowned when he saw nothing written down. “You didn’t solve anything, Ameer.”
“Mister Seymour, yes I solve,” responded Ameer, pointing to his head.
“All right. What is the answer?”
“Mister Seymour, the answer is for sex.”
The class erupted in retching laughter. Some howled like dogs. Others screeched and gagged, tongues flapping. Some clutched their bellies in agony. Others pointed and hooted.
What is so funny, thought Ameer. Am I incorrect? The answer is 46.
Arba’ah. 4. For.
Sittah. 6. Sex.
“Yes, for sex,” he repeated. A boy behind him convulsed in a coughing fit, gasping for his life. A girl in the front row collapsed from her seat.
Ameer didn’t speak again for the rest of the day.
“Oh Master al-Qarawi,” said an Elder seated to Maalik’s left. “You are aware of the misfortune of the latest widow.”
Maalik did not respond. This meant that he was aware. Silence spoke volumes in the jalsa.
“The widow,” he continued (for women were never mentioned by name in a gathering of men), “she is in great need. She has borne many children, and the government has visited her home more than once.”
Although everyone understood what the Elder was asking, Maalik still remained silent. He awaited the last thing which needed to be said.
“And Allah does not forget any one of his servants.”
Maalik spoke. “There is no God but Allah. To Him we belong and to Him we shall return.” He then addressed the jalsa. “Abu Haarith has spoken well, my brothers. We will not forget the children of a son of the House of al-Qarawi.”
He lifted his hand. What was to follow was a command, but it was delivered with exquisite care and precision. “Allah will grant them sustenance. He does not burden a soul except to its own capacity. So let them not fear, for Allah does not forget any one of his servants.”
“Ameen!” announced the assembly. It was agreed. Each Elder would donate an equal share of a sum which would sustain the household of the deceased. As some shuffled in their seats, others sipped their tea. Within moments, silence had been restored. Another Elder spoke: “Gentlemen of this blessed gathering…”
Over the centuries, the tactical art of speaking had been preserved in the traditions that Ameer was accustomed to. And so, he found himself quite stunned when in school he’d regularly hear comments like this:
“Up your ass!”
“Eww, get away from me!”
“Your mom is so fat!”
“[Teacher] is so dumb. I hate her!”
“How about I kick your ass!”
“I don’t care!”
More astonishing than what the students said was how accommodating the adults were to this kind of insolence. It is true that comments such as these were perfectly commonplace among children, even back home. But in all his years of schooling, Ameer knew that no child would ever dare to speak this way in the presence of an adult. As for the unfortunate soul who just happened to slip within earshot of an adult, the flogging he’d receive would ensure his eternal silence and the silence of all who bore witness.
Yet here at Merriman Middle School, not only did teachers tolerate such language among students. They also found it excusable for students to say things to them, such as:
“Who are you!”
“I can get you fired!”
“You can’t talk to me like that!”
“My mom is gonna take this to the board!”
“What are you saying!”
When he heard his name, Ameer sprang from his seat on the floor and stood erect and silent. He lowered his gaze as he responded “Yes, Father.”
“My son,” Maalik continued. “You are aware that Master Abu Haleem has taken sick.”
“He will no longer be able to work. You are to take his position at the shop and assist him in any way he requires.”
“Afterwards, you are to complete his deliveries as well. Do you understand, my son?”
“Yes, Father.” Ameer sat down again.
After school the next day, Ameer ran to Master Abu Haleem’s shop on Corwin Avenue, a distance of a little over a mile. After stacking the newly delivered boxes and stocking the shelves, he swept and mopped the aisles and the storage room. He finished just in time for Evening Prayer. Since he wasn’t of legal driving age, Ameer had to make the day’s final deliveries on foot. He loaded the packages into a shopping cart and took his leave from Abu Haleem.
“Here,” said Abu Haleem, holding out a pair of bills.
Swelling red with shame, with his head crouched low, Ameer begged “Forgive me, my Uncle.”
Abu Haleem took back the money. After all, this had only been a formality. The agreement had clearly implied that Ameer would be doing this to help Abu Haleem. Payment was out of the question.
“Shut up. You wouldn’t do it.”
“I swear I will!”
“I dare you!”
Ameer couldn’t avoid this exchange between a huddle of four or five students to his right. The blond-haired boy retrieved a large red straw from his pocket. He tore a chunk of paper from his notebook and tossed the wad into his mouth.
The teacher was writing on the chalkboard with her back to the class.
“It has to land right there. Where she’s writing,” directed the girl in the blue blouse, “or no deal!” The blond-haired boy nodded.
The children turned to Ameer, who frowned angrily. “No. You can’t do that,” he said.
The faces in the group contorted in disgust.
“Who the hell are you?” said one.
“Go shit in a sand hole or something,” said another.
“Blow a camel,” said another.
“No,” demanded Ameer. “This is wrong. You can’t do that.”
The big wet wad splattered against the center of the board. The teacher swung around violently, her eyes darting across the classroom.
“Who did that!” she demanded. “Answer me! Which one of you was it?”
Nobody responded. The evidence was long gone, the culprits forever cleared of their crime.
“I demand to know who did that!” the teacher cried desperately, almost to herself. The response was a sprinkle of giggles.
Ameer clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. But as much as these insolent monsters deserved to be punished, he knew that they would get away with it. He wouldn’t turn them in. To snitch was dishonorable.
On this day, Ameer had finished his deliveries sooner than usual. He raced home to attend the rest of the jalsa. As he entered the house and crossed the living room, he noticed some unusual commotion from the women, who had assembled in the kitchen. But he had no business involving himself with the affairs of women. He descended the stairs and found the assembly already in session. But as he took his usual place in the circle, he became dreadfully aware of something: his Father was not there.
This was a rattling realization. It was practically unheard-of for men to assemble in an Elder’s home if he was not himself present. Usually, if the head of the tribe was traveling or ill, the jalsa would be held at the home of another Elder. Under the most extreme circumstances, the eldest son, in this case being Ameer, would have to host the jalsa on his Father’s behalf.
This gathering foreshadowed troubling news. But it was not Ameer’s place to ask questions. He took his seat silently and waited. Finally, an Elder spoke.
“Gentlemen of this blessed gathering,” he began. “You are aware that our beloved Master Maalik, Abu Hamza al-Qarawi, has taken sick.”
Ameer shuddered. He most certainly had not been aware.
“You are aware,” continued the Elder, “that his illness is a severe one. We gather this day to pray for our beloved brother, Master Maalik ibn Abdel Kareem.”
“Ameen!” the assembly cried in unison.
Ameer’s body stiffened. His blood chilled. But he remained silent. Silence spoke volumes in the jalsa.
“Oh Most Merciful Lord,” prayed another Elder, “We beseech you in your Holy Name to bless our brother Maalik and to restore him to good health. We beseech you in your Holy Name to ease his suffering. We beseech you…”
In times like these, the Elders embraced the tradition of addressing the absent Elder’s sons indirectly. This was to honor the absent father, as he was the only one entitled to command his children. Nevertheless, the assembly’s message was by no means vague:
“In the gatherings to come, we will meet in the home of our beloved Brother Maalik. He has always been our hospitable host. And Allah has blessed him with those who can uphold his charge. He is most fortunate for this blessing.”
“Stafford throws like a bitch!”
“Your mom throws like a bitch,” cried the slighted defender, elated by his witty and profoundly concocted comeback.
The offender was not to be halted. “Bro, you can’t be serious. They’re 7 and 2! He threw four interceptions just last week! What are you saying?”
“Get outta here! You’re a freakin’ Packers fan. What the hell is that!”
“The only reason you guys even had that win was because of Calvin!”
“Dude, are you serious?”
“Tate had two touchdowns by himself!”
“Yeah, and even that’s a miracle when you got freakin’ Stafford throwin’ the ball!”
“Bro the Packers suck ass! Shut your mouth!”
Sitting before this spectacle of spine-shuddering embarrassment, amidst these shameless vessels of vain vacancy, Ameer couldn’t help but wonder with irrefutable finality: How stupid are these people?
The house was conspicuously silent. The women and children were inaudible upstairs. Tea had been served, but the cups sat untouched, brimming with the lukewarm liquid. The men spoke meekly, stiffly. Ameer sat among them, silent, his eyes fixated upon the weaving intricacies of the rugs which carpeted the floor. His father was still not present.
An Elder quietly asked his neighbor, “…Has he been responding to the treatment?”
The response came in a breathless cough, indicating the negative. Other murmurs communicated the same dejection.
Then one of the Elders spoke up above the others. “So what are the circumstances now?” This finally brought the assembly to attention. Abu Marwan spoke:
“All things are in the hands of Allah. The treatment has not been effective. The doctors have suggested other options. We are at the mercy of the Almighty God.”
The men murmured their prayers. Abu Marwan continued: “Allah is with the patient ones. We mustn’t lose our hope.”
Ameer then knew that Abu Marwan was addressing him.
“And if we are braced with a burden from God, then we must trust in Him, for Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear. And rely on Him, for He is the Most Gracious and Most Merciful…”
Judging by the sniggering of his classmates and the concern on Mr. Seymour’s face, Ameer realized that he had been dozed off for quite some time.
“Yes, Mister Seymour.”
“Ameer, will you step out in the hallway for a moment?”
Ameer exited the classroom obediently. In later days, he would recall that as he was leaving, some students had spat scathing slurs at him, laughing at the “stupid sand nigger” who dumbly crossed the room. Someday, he would remember this. But at that moment, he hadn’t the slightest awareness.
Mr. Seymour followed him into the hallway. “Ameer,” he asked. “What’s the matter?”
“It is okay,” replied Ameer dismissively. “It is okay.” Men do not cry, he reminded himself.
“No, son. I don’t really think it is. What’s going on?”
“Nothing, Mister Seymour. It is okay.” Ameer could feel his chest swelling, his soul ready to surge.
“Ameer,” said Mr. Seymour. “If somebody in school is giving you a hard time…If you need to tell somebody—”
“No Mister Seymour it is okay Mister Seymour everything is okay.” Ameer realized that he had raised his voice at the teacher. “I am sorry. It is okay.”
The moment between them passed without another word.
The Qari recited: “And We will certainly try you by means of fear and hunger and loss of wealth and of lives and of [labor’s] fruits…”
The wailing of the women rang through the corridor and the stairway. Most distinct were the cries of Ameer’s mother and sisters.
Ameer sat against the wall near the entrance. He would rise from time to time to greet the visitors who embraced him and then sat and chatted among the others.
“…But give glad tidings to those who are patient…”
Three toddlers chased each other playfully around the gathering. Ameer’s younger cousins served tea and water. The Elders sat at the farthest end of the room, greeting guests and exchanging prayers and condolences. At another end, some sat in a circle reciting the Quran in unison.
“…who, when calamity befalls them, say, ‘Surely, to Allah we belong and to Him we shall return.’…”
Men do not cry, chanted Ameer.
Men do not cry.
He rocked steadily. Rise, hug, kiss, sit. Rise, hug, kiss, sit. Rock steadily.
“…Those are the ones upon whom the blessings from their Lord are bestowed, and it is they who are the successful ones…”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Seymour responded sadly. “That is incorrect.”
“I hate math,” murmured the mistaken student.
Another girl raised her hand. “14!” she declared.
“Angela, the answer has to be an odd number. How did you come up with 14?”
“I don’t know,” Angela scoffed, enraged by the irrationality of mathematics.
Ameer raised his hand. “Nineteen, Mister Seymour,” he said.
Mr. Seymour smiled. “Very good, Ameer. Nineteen.”
“You don’t have to keep calling his name, you know,” blubbered Angela, rolling her eyes. “We already know what it is.”
This time, Ameer responded. “I respect Mister Seymour. I call him with respect.”
“You call him because you have no life,” answered a red-haired boy.
“You have no life,” answered Ameer. The boy looked back. And somehow, instantly and with certain intuition, the boy knew that something was different.
“You have no life,” repeated Ameer. The boy didn’t answer.
Ameer had arrived just in time to greet the guests for Evening Prayer. He had succeeded in stocking and cleaning Master Abu Haleem’s shop in record time. He had also made his deliveries more productive by tying a cart to his bicycle and mapping out a more efficient route. After prayer, the men descended the stairs to begin the evening’s jalsa.
Ameer had observed well. Without prompting, he knew that his seat was no longer among the eldest sons, but was now beside a bearded Elder named Abu Hisham.
“Peace be upon you all,” announced Abu Marwan.
He had observed well. He knew to not speak unless spoken to. He knew that while some decisions were not his to make, others were his personal responsibility.
“…You are aware of Master Ammar’s detainment. Some of you may know him as Abu Sundus…”
He knew that silence spoke volumes. That words were tools of deliberation, but true decisions lay in what wasn’t said.
“Tell us yours, Abu Hisham. What are your thoughts?…”
He knew that Allah always remembered those who remembered Him. He knew—
“Ameer ibn Maalik.”
Ameer looked up at Abu Marwan, who addressed him nobly. “You are the son of the House of al-Qarawi, the son of Maalik ibn Abdel Kareem, May Allah rest his soul.”
“Ameen,” muttered the assembly solemnly.
“You are a descendent of great men. Tell us, what is your view?”
Ameer paused before responding. This had been a characteristic habit of his father’s.
“Oh Master Abu Marwan, my respected Elder,” he began. “We are in the presence of great and wise men. And Master Abu Sundus is from among these men.”
The Elders nodded. Ameer had spoken well. Another Elder continued Ameer’s thought. “We do not abandon a brother from among this assembly.”
“His predicament is one of a legal nature,” continued Ameer. “Indeed there are those most qualified for matters such as these. Their counsel is greatly valued.”
“Ameen!” announced the assembly. It was agreed. Master Shaheed ibn Shaylan’s son, a lawyer in West Virginia, would look into the matter and inform the jalsa of the best course of action. Date biscuits were served, and as some dipped them into their tea cups, others ate them with yogurt. Shortly afterwards, silence was restored. Another Elder spoke: “Gentlemen of this blessed gathering…”