Jalsa

Reading time: 15-18 minutes

“Bro this kid’s fleeked out or some shit.”

Ameer understood only two words in that phrase: “this” and “or.”

The rest must’ve been in an unknown American dialect. When he had heard it, whispered from one classmate to another, he’d scrambled to write it down. He only hoped that he had spelled it correctly: “brow this ked flekout or semshet.”

He would have to look it up later. It was time for Prayer, and afterwards the Elders were gathering for the jalsa. He washed himself at the sink, then went downstairs. He greeted each guest with eye contact and a handshake. The men assembled in silent rows, facing east, as the foremost of them announced “Allaaaaahu Akbar.”

The jalsa began once everyone had been seated. At the circle’s center was Maalik al-Qarawi, Father of Ameer, son of Abdel Kareem. To his right and left were the Elders of the tribes, and next their eldest sons. Ameer sat among the eldest boys. His father had sons from previous wives, but all of them lived abroad. Ameer was the eldest son in his father’s house.

 Abu Ameer, ibn Abdel Kareem, began: “I Greet you with Peace. We thank Allah that you have joined us in health.”

An Elder responded, “Oh Abu Ameer, most gracious and kind, you’ve welcomed us into your home.”

“We are honored to have you,” said Abu Ameer. This was the cue to begin the jalsa’s talks.

“We Ask Allah for Mercy,” an Elder said, “for we are burdened by the misfortune of Abu Aziz al-Shubi. As you are well aware…”

A woman’s voice called from the stairs below. An older boy said to the youngest one: “Answer the call!” He ran down the stairs and returned with a metal tray of tea cups, a pot, and assortments of sweets and nuts. He served each Elder one by one, then offered the other boys. 

“Tafaddal, my Uncle,” he said to them.

“Shukran, my son,” they each replied.

To Ameer, these matters were ordinary. The rigid formalities, the tacit rhetoric, and all the implied directives were part and parcel of his daily life, though they might well confound an outsider. 

What wasn’t a part of his daily life was what he saw at school the following day.

“Students! Stop. Talking!” bellowed a bespectacled old woman at her flailing class. She might as well have left the room entirely, for she had not the slightest effect on them.

“Matthew! Sit down. This is my last warning! Ellie? Ellie! Class!”

“Hey camel-kid,” sneered a face at Ameer. “You smell like a donkey’s ass.”

Ameer knew what “smell” was, but the rest he couldn’t understand. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a compliment. 

A freckled face joined, his teeth gnashing with every splattering syllable. “Yeah browny!” 

A chair fell over. The class erupted in glee. “Aren’t you gonna go stone a whore or something? Some ninja who showed her foot?”

“HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

This was Ameer’s third day. 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 class to class, unnoticed. This was his third day, and the first time that anyone other than his third period teacher had spoken to him.

“Go take a shower, towel-face.”

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 two minutes to solve this problem. When you think you know the answer, please raise your hand.”

As the students scribbled into their notebooks (except for a few who put their heads down), Ameer was puzzled. He already knew that the answer was 46. He raised his hand.

“No questions, please. Just do you best.”

“Mister Seymour, I know,” said Ameer. “I have answer.”

Mr. Seymour frowned when he saw that nothing was written. “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 spilled over in laughter. They hooted like hounds. They screeched and gagged. They flapped their tongues. They clutched their bellies and squealed.

What is so funny, thought Ameer. It is correct! The answer is 46.

Arba’ah. 4. For.

Sittah. 6. Sex.

“Yes, for sex,” he repeated. A boy behind him gasped from a coughing fit. A girl in front fell out of her seat.

Ameer didn’t speak again for the rest of the day.

“Oh Master al-Qarawi, O Abu Ameer.” The Elder spoke with a smile. “You are aware of the widow’s calamity.”

Maalik did not speak. This meant that he was aware. Silence speaks volumes in the jalsa.

“The widow,” he said, “is in tremendous need. She has many children. The government has come to their house.”

They understood what the Elder was saying. Maalik was silent until the Elder was finished. There was just one more thing he had to say.

“Allah does not forget the Faithful Ones.”

Maalik spoke. “There is no god but God. We are for Him; to Him we shall return.” He turned to the jalsa. “Abu Haarith has spoken well, my brothers. We won’t forget the daughters and sons of This House.”

He lifted his hand. He spoke with precision and care.

“Allah will grant them generous sustenance. He does not burden a soul beyond capacity. So have no fear. Allah does not forget the Faithful Ones.”

“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 until their eldest son was able to provide. As some shuffled in their seats, others sipped their tea. Silence was soon restored. Another Elder spoke: “Gentlemen of this blessed gathering…”

In school, Ameer would hear this kind of talk:

“Shut up!”

“Up your ass!”

“Eww, get away from me!” 

“Your mom is so fat!”

“This teacher’s so dumb. I hate her.”

“DRRR! OKAY!”

“Gimme some!”

“I don’t care!”

The children said it. Adults would let it go. It all astonished Ameer. 

Comments like these were perfectly common with kids, even back home. But Ameer knew no child would dare to say such things to an adult. And if a soul was so unfortunate as to be overheard, then his insolence was promptly beaten out of him.

Yet here, at Merriman, the teachers would not only tolerate this talk, but even more. When reprimanded, kids said things like:

“Who cares?”

“Who are you!”

“This lady…”

“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!”

“Ameer.”

“Yes, Father.”

“My son,” said Maalik. “You are aware that Master Abu Haleem has taken sick.”

“Yes, Father.”

“He will no longer be able to work. You are to help him in the shop.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Afterwards, complete the deliveries. Is this clear, my son?”

“Yes, Father.”

The next day after school, Ameer went straight to Master Abu Haleem’s. He stacked the boxes and stocked the shelves, then swept and mopped the aisles and halls. He finished in time for Evening Prayer. He was too young to drive, so he made the deliveries on foot. He loaded the packages into a shopping cart and graciously took his leave.

“Here,” said Abu Haleem, holding out a bill. 

Red with shame, his head crouched low, Ameer implored him, “Excuse me, Master.”

Abu Haleem took back the money. It had only been a formality. Ameer was there to help his Elder. Payment was out of the question.

“Shut up. You wouldn’t.”

“I swear I will!”

“I dare you!”

Ameer could hear the huddle of kids on his left. The blond-haired boy retrieved a big red straw. He tore a chunk of his notebook paper and tossed it into his mouth.

The teacher was writing on the board. Her back was to the class.

“It has to land right there, where she’s writing,” directed the girl in the blue. The boy nodded.

“No.”

They turned to Ameer, who frowned at them. “You cannot do this,” he said to them.

“Who are you?”

“Go shit in the sand.”

“Go blow a camel or something.”

“You cannot do it,” demanded Ameer.

The wet wad splattered against the board. The teacher swung around.

“Who did that!” she ordered. “Answer me! Which one of you was it?”

Nobody answered. The evidence was gone, the culprits cleared of their crime.

“I demand to know who did that!” she bellowed, almost to herself. They sprinkled her with giggles.

Ameer clenched his teeth. They would get away with it. He wouldn’t turn them in. Snitching was dishonorable.

Ameer had finished his deliveries sooner than usual. He made it home in time to attend the jalsa. When he entered the house and crossed the living room, he heard some commotion coming from the stairs. It was the women in the basement, but this was not his business. 

When he arrived, the jalsa had already started. But as he assumed his usual place in the circle, he became dreadfully aware of something: his Father was not there.

This was rattling. It was unheard-of for men to assemble in an Elder’s house if he wasn’t present himself to host them. If the head of the tribe were traveling or ill, the jalsa would be held at the home of another Elder. If necessary, the eldest son would host the jalsa on his Father’s behalf. 

Ameer did not ask questions. He took his seat and waited silently. Finally, an Elder spoke.

“Gentlemen of this blessed gathering, you are aware that our beloved Master Maalik, Abu Ameer al-Qarawi, has taken sick.”

Ameer shuddered. He had not been aware.

“You are aware,” continued the Elder, “that his illness is severe. We gather this day to pray for our brother, Master Maalik ibn Abdel Kareem.”

“Ameen!” the assembly cried.

Ameer was silent. Silence spoke volumes in the jalsa.

“Most Merciful Lord,” prayed the 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 Family’s Suffering. We Beseech You O Lord in Your Holy Name to Love and Protect our Brothers in every place. You are The Gracious, The All-Merciful.”

“In meetings to come,” the Elder said, “we will meet in the home of our beloved Brother Maalik. He has always been our gracious host. Allah has blessed him with those who can keep his charge.”

Ameer knew that the Elder was talking to him.

“Blessed are the Holy Ones, who are Bestowed with Honor.”

“Stafford throws like a bitch!”

“Your mom throws like a bitch,” said the slighted defender, chuckling at his own ingenious comeback.

“Bro you can’t be serious. They’re 7 and 2! He threw four interceptions 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 won was because of Calvin!”

“No!”

“Yeah!”

“Hell no.”

“Dude, are you serious?”

“Tate had two touchdowns by himself!”

“Yeah, but that’s because Stafford’s throwing the ball!”

“Bro the Packers suck ass! Shut up!”

Seated before this spectacle of spine-shuddering shame, amid these vessels of vacant vitriol, Ameer was forced to finally ask himself: How stupid are these people?

The house was silent. No one could hear the women below. Tea had been served, but the cups sat brimming, untouched. The men spoke stiffly. Ameer sat among them. His eyes were fixed upon the patterned rugs. His father was not there.

An Elder quietly asked his neighbor, “…Has he responded to the treatment?”

The answer was a breathless cough. Other murmurs expressed the same dejection.

“So what are the circumstances now?” This brought the assembly to attention. Abu Marwan spoke:

“All things are in the hands of Allah. The treatment has not been effective. The doctors are considering other options. We are at the Mercy of God Almighty.”

The men murmured their prayers. Abu Marwan continued: “Allah is with the Patient Ones. We mustn’t lose hope.”

Abu Marwan looked down. He was speaking to Ameer.

“And if we are braced with a burden from God, then we must Trust in Him. Allah would never burden a soul with more than it can bear. Rely on Him, for He is Gracious and Merciful.”

“Ameer?”

“Yes, Mister Seymour.”

“Ameer, will you step out in the hallway for a moment?”

Ameer exited the classroom. Mr. Seymour followed him. “Ameer,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“It is okay,” replied Ameer. “It is okay.” Men do not cry, he chanted.

“No, son. I don’t really think it is. What’s going on?”

“Nothing, Mister Seymour. It is okay.” Ameer was swelling. His heart was going 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 passed without another word.

The Qari recited: “And We will test you by means of fear and hunger and loss of wealth and lives and [labor’s] fruits…”

The women’s wailing echoed from the stairway.

Ameer sat against the wall. He rose from time to time to greet the guests. They hugged him tightly, kissing him on the cheeks.

“…But give good news to those who are patient…”

Three toddlers chased each other around the room. The cousins served tea and water. The Elders sat in the back of the room. They greeted guests and offered prayers. Some sat in a circle reciting Qur’an.

 “…Those who, when calamity befalls them, say, ‘We Belong to Allah, and to Him we shall return.’…”

Men do not cry, chanted Ameer. He rocked in his seat. Rise, hug, kiss, sit. Rise, hug, kiss, sit rise hug kiss sit.

“…They’re the ones who receive the Blessings from their Lord, and they are the Successful Ones…”

“13?”

“I’m sorry,” said Mr. Seymour. “That is incorrect.”

“I hate math,” murmured the mistaken student.

A 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,” she scoffed, incensed by irrational 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,” said Angela, rolling her eyes. “We already know what it is.

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,” said Ameer. The boy looked back at him. 

“You have no life,” said Ameer again. “Say, ‘O You Who Disbelieve…’” he recited to himself.

“You have no life,” Ameer said one last time. The boy didn’t answer. The boy didn’t dare.

He entered the guest room just in time for Prayer. He had stocked and cleaned Abu Haleem’s shop, then made his deliveries in record time. After prayer, the men began the jalsa.

Ameer had observed well. Without prompting, he knew that his seat was no longer among the eldest sons, but was now to the right of an Elder named Abu Hisham.

“Peace and Blessings, Brothers,” said Abu Marwan. 

He had observed well. He knew when to speak and when to remain silent. He knew when to wait, and when to offer suggestions.

“…You are aware of Brother Ammar’s detainment. Some of you know him as Abu Sundus…”

He knew that silence spoke volumes, that the Truth was the unspoken.

“Tell us your thoughts, O Abu Hisham…”

He knew that Allah was there for those who Remember Him. He knew—

“Ameer ibn Maalik.”

Ameer looked down. Abu Marwan addressed him directly. “You are the son of the House of al-Qarawi, the son of Maalik ibn Abdel Kareem, May Allah rest his soul.”

“Ameen,” the assembly muttered.

“You descend from great men. Tell us, what is your view?”

Ameer waited before responding. Just as his father used to. “O Master Abu Marwan, my respected Elder,” he began. “We are in the presence of great and sensible men. And Master Abu Sundus is one of these men.”

The Elders nodded. Ameer had spoken well. Abu Ahmad continued Ameer’s thought. “We will not abandon a Brother of the House.”

“This is a legal matter,” said Ameer. “There are among us those who are most qualified. We will seek their love and counsel.”

“Ameen!” announced the assembly. It was agreed. Master Shaheed had a son who practiced law in West Virginia. He would review the case and advise the jalsa. Date biscuits were served. Some dipped them into their tea cups, and others ate them with yogurt. Silence was soon restored. Another Elder spoke: “Brothers of this blessed gathering…”

Back to Prose.

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