APRIL 2000: RIZWAN
When Sahar Salam’s mother called her early one morning to tell her about a prospective suitor, she steeled herself for the bad news. She stared out the window at the rows of tenement buildings behind her studio apartment and refused, for the most part, to listen. If she had, this is what she would have heard:
Fordham Law School..
From a good family.
Born in Maryland.
Family owned business.
Older sister just married (sigh) to gorah but got him to convert, which is, of course, a great boon.
Youngest of five.
Strayed once (also in general gorah direction) but caught himself just in time.
“Oh, and you will like this, Sahar, he’s very liberal. He encouraged his sisters to work and study.”
Sahar heard the last bit, rolled her eyes, and said, “Does he have all his own teeth? Because that would be the determining factor for me.”
There was silence, and Sahar heard the phone go dead. But she knew that wasn’t the last of it. Her mother, the battle-ax, would never admit defeat that easily. She was gathering strength, amassing size like Godzilla under the ocean, for when the real war began. Sahar would have to see him. She would be manipulated into it, and she always gave herself over to her mother’s guilt trips.
Her mother had pointed out, much to Sahar’s chagrin, that she wanted to be loved, and there was no use trying to be all modern about it.
“There are only two things all human beings crave, Sahar,” she said one day, “no matter how big their time share in the Hamptons is or how many of those fancy Jewish shoes, which you cannot afford, you have in your closet: love and recognition. If you marry well, you will attain both.”
“I don’t think Manolo Blahnik is Jewish, mom,” Sahar replied. “I mean he may be. What does that have to do with anything?” Her mother, however, had already moved on to another subject.
Sahar knew when her mother talked about “marrying well” she meant marrying a Muslim, preferably of Bangladeshi extraction, with a useful degree from an accredited college. Ever since Sahar was a girl she had mentally kept her fingers crossed behind her back when it came to religion. She had done the ablutions, prayed, fasted, even toyed with the idea of covering her hair when she was outside, just so her parents would be distracted from her prolific pot use and energetic sex life. If her mother had ever found her stash, which was hidden under (strategically so, so as to distract) a selection of halter-tops of varying degrees of immodesty, she would have been grounded for an indefinite period of time. She had lived a secret life for as long as she could remember, but now she was twenty-eight and all the scrutiny was upon her. It was time to be married. It was as simple as that, and the weird thing was, Sahar, in her heart, agreed. It was just that she and her parents could not agree upon the type of wedding she should have, or more importantly, the kind of husband. Sahar was lonely and her mother had caught on to it, probably because Sahar was always so busy, clutching her cell phone to her ear and avoiding stillness at all costs.
“You are moving so fast, you must be afraid to be alone,” her mother declared one Eid. Sahar had been too weak from fasting to respond to that appallingly accurate analysis. It was all she could do to scowl at her mother, who unconcernedly kept rolling out chapatti dough on a marble slab and checking the kitchen clock every so often. Eid revelers would be descending upon the Salam household at any moment and naturally, they would all be ravenous, a fact Sahar’s mother resented.
“Mutton doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” her mother whispered under her breath as the guests fell on the food, piling it on to their plates as if it was the last supper they would ever receive. Her mother was too preoccupied then to have the conversation Sahar wanted to have. Sahar was bursting to talk about her loneliness with someone and most of her gorah friends had pointedly recommended she keep certain things to herself, i.e. not tell her mother anything about the ache of an empty space that probably originated in her womb, news that would surely send a concerned mother into a matchmaking flurry. But her mother was the most logical choice. Who knew Sahar better than she knew herself? Certainly no one from the string of breathless and dissipating Western-style romances she had had since she was fifteen years old.
“Amma?” Sahar said while her mother swatted away a thirsty child who had come in search of Pepsi for the eighth time and appeared to be jonesing for some more, “Do you think it’s time I was married?”
Sahar had always known she was a masochist but had never so forcibly put this trait to the test. It was as if she was saying, “How much pain can I possibly take?”
Her mother turned to her slowly, the way Sahar had seen a samurai in a Kurosawa movie turn to meet his ultimate foe, a hand on the hilt of the sword, tensed to spring into action, suspiciously yet subtly searching to see what their next move is. Sahar stepped back and waited for the flash of the blade. She now realized what she had done, and it was far too late. But her mother merely nodded—it was almost imperceptible—and her eyes, misty from the early stages of glaucoma, filled with tears.
“Yes, my darling,” she said gently, clasping her hands together. “It is time you were married.”
And so that is what led Sahar to the Fordham University Law Student with the tall stature and fair skin and gorah brother-in-law, who everybody called Mohammed Chip.
Sahar’s sarcastic reference to the suitor’s teeth had been ignored and her mother forged ahead as planned, calling to tell Sahar that he, Rizwan, wanted to meet with her first, alone (“Isn’t that so modern?”) whenever she deemed convenient at a location of her choice.
“How about never and in hell?” Sahar replied.
Her mother sighed and hung up the phone for the third time that week, leaving Sahar to feel that she was a very bad daughter indeed.
When the day arrived to meet Rizwan, Sahar, to her private mortification, took pains with her appearance. She had been going back and forth on the subject of her dress since the day before. Since the fateful day she had sought her mother’s counsel on the subject of marriage, Sahar resorted to sophomoric subterfuge. The several times Rizwan had attempted to contact her directly she had conveniently been out of town, or her answering machine had accidentally erased his messages. Her mother, as usual, was undeterred and, unbeknownst to Sahar, encouraged Rizwan to take the same attitude. She wore Sahar down slowly, passively, like water would do to a rock, but in much less time. Rizwan’s voice on the answering machine, disconcertingly deep as it was, revealed nothing to help Sahar’s imagination along.
Two days later in a restaurant, Sahar glanced in an accent mirror next to the maitre’d’s station before walking to the table where Rizwan sat waiting for her. She had worn a snug wrap around top that accentuated her cleavage, and painted her lips MAC vixen maroon with nails to match. She had gotten auburn highlights the day before, blazing, the faggy hairdresser had called it, a new technique, very bold.
The last bit of sabotage. She could have gone either way. She could have scared him off by appearing dreadfully homely or she could play a vampiress and let the chips fall where they may. She was too vain (and paradoxically hopeful) to attempt the former.
He looked anxious and impatient, tapping the tip of his fork against the edge of the table and taking small quick sips of water from a tumbler. He was dressed casually and stylishly and had a thick head of hair that waved back from his face. His lanky legs jutted out from beneath the tablecloth. He was indeed fair skinned as promised, fairer than her actually, she noticed to her dismay and then became more dismayed that she was thinking about such things. If a person she had never met threw her into such confusion, then this couldn’t be good.
“This is ridiculous,” Sahar said under her breath and turned to leave. She would make up some excuse to her mother, who would then have to face Rizwan. “It is not my problem,” Sahar thought, not at all sure it wasn’t.
The maitre’d, who had been silently observing Sahar observing Rizwan asked if she was ready to be led to her table. She shook her head and walked out of the restaurant. Once outside, she felt suddenly free and took a deep breath. She began walking east towards the park. She was going to sit on a bench and watch ratty New York pigeons fight over bread and scantily clad roller bladders glide by. That was her new plan for Saturday night. And when she was done doing that for however many hours she deemed fit, she was going to go back to her tiny apartment in Chelsea and finish off the bottle of Grey Goose her friend Wanda had left when she was by last week. Her answering machine would be turned off, her shades pulled down, her body cozily encased in pima cotton drawstring pants and tank top with shaggy slippers to match, her blazed hair pulled back into a jaunty pony tail, and her anti-blemish, anti-aging crème would be smeared into place.
“Sounds like a plan,” Sahar thought. But she just couldn’t face the emptiness of the apartment yet, so she was going to sit in the park and take some air.
Sahar found an unoccupied bench underneath a thick oak tree and plopped down. She closed her eyes and listened for a while to the soft rustling of the leaves. The sun threw long shadows on the asphalt at her feet. It gradually grew darker and Sahar opened her eyes, straining to read the hands on her watch. Seven o’clock and the sun hadn’t completely set. Summer was fast approaching. Summer, minus the heat that released the stench of old urine from winter hibernation in the subway and wilted her hair and the flowers at Chelsea market, was her favorite season. It was happy-go-lucky carnality and inevitably led to string-free sexual liaisons. Twenty-eight was too young to relinquish all that, Sahar decided sitting on the bench. A couple frolicked in the dying light with their Jack Russell Terrier and a glow in the dark Frisbee. Sahar watched the ghostly green disk fly through the air and land at the foot of one of the men and he flicked it to his partner, who snatched it out of the air and then ran to embrace him. The dog jumped excitedly between their knees as they folded into a prolonged hug. When they finally let go of one another, the dog was panting and Sahar was crying. She didn’t realize it at first. She felt something wet roll down her cheeks, but she didn’t immediately register it as tears.
She sniffed and stood to leave, glancing back at the couple who were laughing at their dog’s antics. She could tell they all loved each other. They were a family; a pair of queens and their stunted dog and she, a pretty, smart, funny, passable cook, couldn’t make a family of her own. She had to resort to standing up unknown men chosen by her mother in chic eateries.
When Sahar emerged from the 23rd street station, it was raining, a sudden spring deluge that threatened to drown everything. She ran the seven blocks to her apartment, holding her clutch over her head as an inadequate shield. Since it was made of cloth most of the contents of her bag were soaked, including the piece of paper that had Rizwan’s cell, home, and work numbers printed on it. The ink had bled, making the numbers illegible.
“Just as well,” Sahar thought. It occurred to her that she could use this as a viable excuse. Something had come up, so she couldn’t make the date, and the sudden violent rain shower had destroyed his contact numbers. Allah’s will.
Her hands were slippery. She struggled with the key to get the door open and even when she had unlocked the door the wood had swollen around it so that she had to push to make it budge. She leaned on the recalcitrant door with her shoulder and it finally gave way, with more force than she had applied to it. She looked behind her to see Rizwan, soaked and smiling sheepishly down at her. He said, “You’re a fast runner. Are you still crying or is that the rain?”
Sahar felt the heat rise to her face as she attempted to gather her thoughts.
“It’s rude to stalk people,” she said finally, after trying hard to find some witty retort.
“Well, that’s an understatement if I ever heard one,” Rizwan replied. “I wasn’t stalking you. The waiter at the restaurant came to get me when you ran out and I ran after you, but I had to cancel the order first because I had ordered a drink. I couldn’t catch up to you immediately and when I found you, you were asleep on a park bench.”
“I wasn’t asleep,” Sahar said.
“I didn’t want to disturb you, so I waited for you to open your eyes,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “Then, when you did, you started staring at the gay couple with the dog and the next thing I knew, you were bawling.”
Sahar scowled. “I wasn’t bawling,” she said. This guy likes to sum things up, she thought. He is summing me up. I don’t like to be summed up. I can’t be summed up. I defy definition, dammit!
“Are you alright?” Rizwan said. “Your face is all scrunched up.”
“I am perfectly alright, and I don’t bawl,” she said. “Well, whatever it was. Do you mind if I come in?” He ran his fingers through his thick hair, which was dripping, and smiled at her. “I need to dry off and then I’ll be out of your hair. I wanted to see if you were okay.”
Sahar walked in first and held the door open for him. With his height and broad shoulders, he all but swallowed up the narrow foyer.
She pointed up the stairs. “Third floor, apt G,” she said.
“Lead the way,” he said and smiled at her again. His eyes, against all odds, were blue. Her mother had failed to mention that small detail. Sahar squinted to see if they were fake. Fake eyes would end the entire matter right then and there. Rizwan playfully squinted back.
“Let me guess, you didn’t wear your glasses,” he said.
Sahar, taken aback by his audacity, said, “You have balls, I’ll give you that.”
“You didn’t expect that from a nice Muslim boy, huh?” He looked at her and frowned, mock serious. “I guess you didn’t want to get your veil all wet?” When Sahar stared at him slack jawed, he said, “You do normally wear hijab don’t you?”
“Eh?” Sahar swallowed and brushed away a strand of wet hair. Rizwan smiled pleasantly back at her even though her gaze was now decidedly hostile. She wanted to flee until she remembered that it was her foyer that he was clogging up.
Finally, she said, “Oh yeah, I’ve got a ton of them upstairs, all colors and patterns. But I decided to go bare today.”
“Good. I wouldn’t want anything to distract from your cleavage,” he said, his grin widening.
For once, Sahar’s apartment was tidy. She had cleaned up in anticipation of just what was happening, Rizwan dropping in. Everything was in its proper place; books on shelves (and neatly stacked on never used stove), green chenille throw draped with careless elegance behind recently vacuumed, only slightly stained couch. There was bottled water in the fridge and a fruit platter—her mother had dropped it by that morning, much to Sahar’s irritation. She’d even borrowed a plant from her neighbor, who had a green thumb. Sahar was known to kill even cacti if they were left in her care but believed that a thriving plant indicated somehow her ability to raise a child to adulthood. She was in advertising after all. It was all about perception.
Sahar quickly walked in ahead of Rizwan, forgetting that she had tidied up. She stopped and said, “Oh,” surprised by how airy and organized the normally messy room looked.
“What is it?” Rizwan asked. He looked over her head and peered into the tiny living room. “It looks nice.”
He walked around her into the room.
“May I”? he said, and indicated the couch.
“Go ahead,” she said.
There was an awkward silence, but it was mainly only awkward for Sahar. Rizwan was looking around, summing things up, Sahar thought resentfully. She watched him for a while, and then remembered her manners and was about to offer him a drink when Rizwan said, “Ever been on a blind date?
“Unfortunately, yes.” “What’s the difference between this and that?” “My mother wasn’t involved.” “Fair
enough. My mother had nothing to do with this. She
doesn’t even know.”
“How did you find out about me?”
“The Auntie net. My aunt knows your mother or something. I don’t know.”
“You’re looking for romance?”
“Sex then?” Rizwan gave her a pleasant smile.
Sahar adjusted her shirt so it covered a bit more skin, and frowned at him slightly.
“That I don’t need my mother or your aunt to arrange,” she replied.
“Why did you bolt?”
“Maybe I didn’t like the look of you.”
“Me? Impossible. I took one of those tests in Cosmo and I am perfect boyfriend material.”
Sahar watched him as he got up and walked to her bookshelf and started browsing. His audacity and self-confidence were at once breathtakingly masculine and off-putting. If someone else had been recounting this story to her she would have chastised them for buying into archaic notions of masculine and feminine because that is what Wellesley taught her to do. At that moment, however, Sahar was immersed in the roller coaster ride that this guy had somehow ushered her on to. She cleared her throat to indicate she wanted him to look at her so they could continue the conversation. He didn’t turn around. So she cleared it again. He looked at her.
“Oh really, a Cosmo test said you were perfect?” she said, as casually as she could.
She walked up to him and took the book out of his hands and replaced it on the shelf. Rizwan chuckled.
“I’m probably asking for trouble but I think we should have a do-over,” he said.
“I’m a closer. I like to see things through.”
“You just can’t believe someone wouldn’t want you.”
“That too. You’re not on any medication are you?”
“Not yet but give me time.”
“So do you have any hobbies?”
“Did Cosmo tell you to open with that line?”
“For instance, I played basketball all through high school and college. I should keep it up. I just haven’t had the time.”
Sahar blinked at him and walked into the kitchen, opened the cabinet above the sink and took out a bottle of Grey Goose Vodka. She held it up to Rizwan and raised her eyebrows. He shook his head, “No thanks,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” she replied. She poured herself a finger’s worth of vodka and held up the glass. “To the ubiquitous auntie net!” and then downed it in one shot. If he knew she was trying to make a point, he did not show it. Instead, he kept talking, undeterred. If he found this display rather sophomoric he did not show it.
“Basketball is a game of stealth, speed, and strategy. Have you ever seen Michael Jordon play? He’s what I would call an artist.”
“Uh huh,” Sahar said and poured herself another shot.
“Now I get why your mother was so anxious about our meeting.”
“You have what they call a complex.”
“You have no right to come to my house and insult me.”
“Then refute me.”
“I don’t need help finding a boyfriend. I can do that on my own. You seem healthy and reasonably sane, why do you need your aunt to set you up?”
“How did your parents meet?”Sahar groaned and drank the vodka. “Please, they are not a good example.”
“Mine too. Total mismatch!”
“Really? Then why would you want to do this?”
“Do what? It’s dinner, maybe coffee. No one’s picking out china patterns.”
He paused, and looked thoughtful. “I should go. Good luck to you. It’s late. I can’t keep up hostile repartee all night. I have to work tomorrow.”
He stood up to leave.
“You’re a lawyer right?” Sahar said.
“It sounds impressive.”
“There are too many lawyers on the planet.”
“Then why did you become one?”
“Would you believe me if I said: to do good.”
“To do good what?”
“Not all lawyers are snakes. Some of us are idealists.”
“It’s easy to be an idealist when you’re making money. Then again I don’t know what kind of a lawyer you are. You could be a human rights lawyer or something. Are you?”
“No. Corporate. But when I am overseeing a hostile takeover, I try to make it less hostile.”
“Well that’s something.”
“Every little bit helps. Actually, I am transitioning out of corporate law.”
“Oh,” she said, “What does that mean?”
Rizwan shrugged. “Not sure yet. I will let you know.”
“Maybe we could get together sometime. You don’t seem that dysfunctional,” she said.
“You seem like a gigantic pain in the ass.”
“Thanks,” she shook her head and chuckled.
“No, really. It took guts for me to come up here after you ran like that. You agreed to meet with me, no one held a gun to your head and then you act like I’m a perv or something for wanting to meet you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m just wary of someone my mother would recommend.”
“That’s pretty adolescent.”
“I was a very pretty adolescent. Ha! That’s a joke.”
Sahar gave a short laugh and stopped herself. She always made jokes when she was uncomfortable or suddenly nervous and this man, this set up was making her decidedly nervous. He really was attractive, she thought suddenly, and peered at him, as if seeing him for the first time.
“Yeah, I got it,” he said. “Okay, do over. I’ll call you.”
“No, I’ll call you,” she said brusquely, more so than she intended. She had the vague notion that she might have lost control of the situation.
“Fine,” Rizwan said. “I’ll go now.”
She walked him to the door and opened it for him. They smiled at one another for a moment. Sahar searched for something appropriate and pithy to say but nothing came to mind. Rizwan surprised her by suddenly leaning in and kissing her on the cheek. She was taken aback and so stood frozen. Later, she would wonder why she had reacted that way and would determine that it was Rizwan’s ease with himself that she found so disconcerting and attractive.
“See you soon,” he said quietly, and walked down the stairs. She closed the door after him, not sure what had happened, but fully confident that he would not easily forget her.
FOUR MONTHS LATER her mother seemed to know before Sahar did that Rizwan was planning to propose as soon as he returned from Dubai, where he was busy with a family matter. He had left his job in May and by August was working for a non-profit legal aid organization in the city. Sahar was disappointed at first that Rizwan, who had placed fourth in his class and made law review, would lean his ambitions in that direction. But she had quickly resolved herself to the fact that he was obviously the altruistic semi-activist sort (the kind Sahar made fun of in college and secretly envied because they believed in something) and that there probably wasn’t going to be matching Jaguars and corporate boxes at the Garden in their future. He never hid his long-term intentions from her. He told her their second time together that he wanted to work with newly arrived immigrants and help them settle into their adopted country. He wanted to make sure they knew their rights. It seemed to Rizwan that many people didn’t know they had rights. Natural born Americans included.
Sahar lay with her head on his bare smooth chest, her slim legs entwined around his. They had just finished making love and Rizwan, oddly, was chattier after making love than he was before foreplay. It was as if it re-energized him—unlike most men she had encountered, who could be heard snoring the moment the last bit of semen was ejected.
“I wanted you to know Sahar, from the jump,” he said, playing with her tangled hair, “that being materially rich is not so important to me.”
“Me neither,” Sahar lied, taking in the fading smell of his cologne. He smelled like lemons and soap or fresh rainwater, but that was probably more psychological than anything else, she told herself, because when they met it had been raining. She could feel him smile. She raised her head to look at him.“What?” she said, a bit defensively.
“You’re lying,” he said.
“Nooo,” she said and snatched the pillow from under his head to hit him with it. He started laughing and shielding himself from her mock-violent blows. He grabbed her arms and pinned them to her sides as he kissed her mouth.
“It’s important to you now, but I will make you understand,” he said between kisses. “There’s more to life than being just content. How can we really be anyway, when others are suffering?” He stopped kissing her and watched her face for a reaction.
“That’s fine,” she said and pulled him on top of her.
She started calling him GBS, which stood for Gandhi But Sexy. This mortified his mother and most of their relations, except his brother-in-law, Mohammed Chip, who was usually too preoccupied with deciphering a passage of the Koran to take notice. (Rizwan told her that even the local Imam found him tiresome.) She knew Rizwan’s mother disapproved of her affectionate if somewhat overblown nickname for him simply because Gandhi was a Hindu. It struck Sahar as very irrational but she never said a word about it. It was not in her nature to ponder such things. The sexy part his mother secretly agreed with. Her son was, after all, the handsomest young man in the community.
Mohammed Chip, a former Catholic, had willingly converted to Islam when he married Rizwan’s sister and was, therefore, a prize possession of the family, paraded around as evidence of their direct pipeline to Paradise. To get one of the infidels to convert was like winning the divine Islamic version of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Rizwan’s sister seemed less impressed with her husband’s devotion and spent most family occasions sneaking cigarettes behind the tool shed in her parent’s Elicott City garden and grimacing whenever talk of the Middle East or religion came up.
When Mohammed Chip and Maryiam had met at Georgetown her junior year he had been a rugby playing, beer guzzling Irish Catholic frat boy. By the time Sahar met him there was no evidence of that ruddy-faced carefree boy Maryam had shown her pictures of. In nearly every pre-conversion picture, Chip wore a wide, easy smile and held a bottle of beer loosely in his fingers. This man wore a skullcap and disappeared every few minutes (or so it seemed to Sahar) to pray, and studiously ignored the presence of women in a room. His wispy beard was neatly trimmed. He went to the mosque every Friday for Jumma prayer and hosted “discussion groups” in their Washington D.C. flat that, according to Maryam, consisted of long diatribes against Israel and the current administration along with concerned dialogue on the shocking promiscuity of today’s young Muslim women. If anyone expressed an opinion that somehow went against what they had identified as the true teachings of the Prophet, they were asked never to return.
“I can divide my life into two distinct time periods,” Maryam confided to Sahar sulkily. “Pre-conversion and post-conversion. PC 1 and PC 2 I call it. During PC 1 I had a whole life. You name it, sex, picnics, drinks with friends. I had it. And I took it for granted so now it’s gone. It’s amazing how much a person can miss picnics.”
Mohammed Chip refused to eat anything that wasn’t halal, and even went as far as to question the religious soundness of his mother-in-law’s beef curry. As happy as she was that her son-in-law had embraced her religion, it was plain to Sahar that Rizwan’s mother also thought she had created a monster. The older woman had removed the offending dish and took her place at the table with a tight smile. The others, including Sahar, glared at an unwitting Mohammed Chip, who continued eating as if nothing had happened.
“What is it about religion,” Sahar asked Rizwan on the drive home that weekend, “that makes normally sane men into blithering idiots?”
“You think Chip—“ Rizwan started to say.
“Mohammed Chip,” Sahar interrupted, smiling.
“Okay, Mohammed Chip, is a fool, you think?”
Sahar was surprised. “You don’t think that what he did to your mother last night was rude?”
“He just wasn’t thinking,” Rizwan said.
“My point exactly,” Sahar replied. “His brain is addled with Hadiths and the Prophet said this and the Prophet said that. How does he know what the Prophet said? He never even met Mohammed.”
“It’s in the book, remember?”
“So what?” Sahar said. Rizwan flashed her a look of irritation but said nothing. Sahar continued even though she noticed he suddenly looked tense. “What I mean is we don’t really know what the Prophet said, Rizwan. He had people writing down his words and it was left up to interpretation. You know I read somewhere that someone had done a re-translation of some sections of the Koran. You know the section that states if one martyrs himself in the name of Allah, he will go to Paradise and will receive the reward of countless virgins.”
“Sounds good to me,” Rizwan gave her a mischievous grin.
“Well apparently, its raisins, Rizwan, not virgins.”
“Raisins not virgins. People are killing themselves because they think they are going to get laid and guess what? Instead they’re going to get an eternity’s worth of raisins, preferably Californian!”
“That’s bullshit, Sahar!” Rizwan snapped. “Where do you hear such things? You can’t just go around blaspheming the Koran and making stuff up!” he cried.
“What’s blasphemous about raisins?” Sahar said
angrily. “You can bake with them; you can put them in a Waldorf salad.”
“This is ridiculous,” Rizwan said.
He pulled the rented Taurus off the highway and turned off the engine. He looked out at the road in front of them and scowled. Sahar stared out the window. They were near the Delaware Water Gap.
“Sahar,” Rizwan said after a moment, “You know better than to speak lightly about the Koran and the Prophet and all that. You can say what you like to me but you have to be careful. There are a lot of people who take this very seriously, seriously enough to want to hurt you.”
Sahar bristled at his condescending tone.
“Can I Rizwan? Can I say what I want to you? It doesn’t seem like it.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Anyway,” she continued, “that’s the problem with these people. Why can’t I have my opinion? You don’t see Jews doing that sort of thing.” Rizwan clutched the steering wheel so tightly that Sahar saw his knuckles turn white.
“Sahar,” he said, drawing her name out. She could see he was trying to control himself. “What about fanatics who want to ban any mention of Darwin and the theory of evolution in schools?” he said. He was almost pleading. “What about them Sahar? Or people who murder abortion doctors? What about Billy Graham? I think that man is scarier than Saddam Hussain! He thinks Muslims should be driven out of Jerusalem. Because the Messiah is going to come there and he doesn’t want any Muslims around. How the hell does he know what Jesus wants?” He had lost his breath and Sahar lit into him almost at once.
“Are you listening to yourself?” She said. “Billy Graham, Mohammed Chip. What’s the difference?”
“Okay, but my president doesn’t have prayer breakfasts with Mohammed Chip,” Rizwan said. “He doesn’t seek his counsel on all things spiritual…thank God.”
“I don’t want to fight about this,” Sahar said softly. “There’s a reason I avoid these kinds of conversations.”
Rizwan released the steering wheel and took Sahar’s cold, small hand, holding it gently between his. “It’s important that you understand me. I want to do what’s right. I want to live properly. With conviction, that’s all,” he said. His eyes sought hers but Sahar looked away, uncomfortable with the intensity in them. It reminded her, though she couldn’t immediately remember why, of the way she felt whenever the mullah her mother hired to teach her the Koran would come for lessons. He had been young and too earnest, never smiling at her or acknowledging her shy attempts to befriend him. She looked back at Rizwan and suddenly remembered: the intensity in the young mullah’s eyes was something that looked utterly beyond her, making her feel that she somehow her life, her needs or thoughts didn’t count. He was focused on something greater, not better, just far vaster and she, Sahar, would be swallowed by it. That was what she saw in Rizwan’s eyes at that moment but she told herself she was just afraid and weary.
“I am tired of self righteousness. The world is full of too many people who shove their ideals down everyone else’s throat,” Sahar replied tiredly. She slipped her hand from beneath his and continued gazing out the window.
“Muslims haven’t cornered the market on religious zealotry, Sahar,” Rizwan said. “I don’t care what you say, Rizwan Rahman,” she said, “It’s the Muslims who make the big gestures. Blowing everything up, taking people hostage. It’s irrefutable.” Sahar was suddenly very angry. She could feel her eyes filling with tears. It occurred to her that her mascara was not waterproof.
Rizwan abruptly turned back to the steering wheel and started up the car.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, visibly angry. “I think you seriously need to open your eyes and stop watching the news.”
“Fuck off!” she cried.
“Gladly,” he retorted.
“And Mohammed Chip is loony,” she added for a further sting. “He’s passionate,” Rizwan said.
“He’s a zealot,” Sahar countered, “and is probably going to do something nuts like vandalize a synagogue.”
Two months later, when Sahar’s mother insisted that Rizwan was close to making an offer, as she put it, like he was ready to close on a choice bit of real estate, he left, for all places, the Middle East, to retrieve Mohammed Chip, who had, in fact, done something loony as Sahar predicted he would.
It was the middle of September and Rizwan had been in Dubai for a month. Before he left he told her he loved her and would be back in ten days, as soon as he got Mohammed Chip sorted out. They had spent a good deal of time making up after their first big argument but things had changed between them. They both seemed uneasy now, and always seemed to be trying to anticipate what the other would find offensive. Their relationship, Sahar noticed, had become depressingly polite. Only once she had risked starting another fight when she handed him a photo-copy of the article on the modern translations of the Koran.
“See that guy there?” she pointed to the picture of a nerdy looking young man in a skull cap with an unkempt beard who stared dolefully at the camera. “He’s a Syrian American who revisited some of the original translations. He does the whole nine, prays, fasts, Hajs, you name it. And he thinks a retranslation is in order.”
“You think that’s all it takes to be Muslim?” Rizwan asked her sadly.
“At this point, I think that’s all it’s been broken down to,” Sahar said. Rizwan nodded and neatly folded the article before putting it in his pocket without saying a word.
And then Mohammed Chip left for a quick excursion to Mecca. He had gone to Saudi Arabia alone, without Maryiam, to perform Umraa, a preliminary to the Haj. Once there, he had fallen in with a group of men who had convinced him that he should stay on in the region and help them with their cause. What their exact cause was had yet to be determined. Mohammed Chip offered no clues himself but merely stated in a brief letter to his frantic wife that “he had discovered what it was he was meant to do.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” screamed a distraught Maryam as Sahar and others tried to calm her down. Her mother, who now bore the entire burden of her daughter’s distress because of her insistence that Mohammed Chip convert, threw herself at her daughter’s feet and begged forgiveness.
Sahar viewed the pandemonium with growing dread. Rizwan had yet to contact her. She knew through his
mother that he had tracked his brother-in-law to Dubai, but it had been ten days since they had last heard from him.
Then, on Sept 16th, the unimaginable happened, though, at the time, Sahar was not aware of how it affected her. A prominent member of a right-wing Israeli group led a march on the Al Aq’sa mosque in Jerusalem. He said he was just visiting. The Palestinians claimed he desecrated a holy Muslim site. They were outraged and demanded an apology; they were refused and so began the intifada.
For the first few weeks, Sahar went about her business making a conscious effort to not think about Rizwan. He had finally called her two weeks after the Palestinians began their uprising. It was now early October.
“Do you see what they are doing to the Palestinians?” Rizwan asked her as she struggled to hear him over the tinny echo on the line. “Every week they are flying the wounded into Abu Dhabi. Do you know how many children are among the wounded?”
“I know, I know,” Sahar said. She didn’t say what she really felt: why are they sending their children out to face the tanks with rocks? Instead she said, “When are you coming home?”
“Well,” Rizwan began and Sahar’s heart sank when she heard the apology in his voice. She dropped to the floor and leaned her head on the arm of the couch.
“Well,” she heard again, but it was just his echo. “I can’t come home just yet.”
“Is it Chip?” she asked, her voice breaking.
“Yes and no,” Rizwan replied. There was a pause and then again, “Yes and no.”
“Just tell me when you are coming home,” Sahar said. She couldn’t keep the panic out of her voice.
“Soon and as soon as I do, well there’s something I want to ask you,” Rizwan said. He sounded shy.
“Yes?” she said. “Yes?”
“Will you marry me Sahar?”
Sahar began to cry silently. “Are you sure? I mean, I’m not a very, uh, religious person.”
“I know,” Rizwan said. “But I told you, this isn’t about that…never mind. Will you marry me or not?”
“Yes, I will,” she said. “Rizwan?” But all she heard was her own voice calling back to her.
OCTOBER: AL AQ’SA
After Sahar hung up the phone she felt dissatisfied. In another scenario, she would have
immediately called her mother to tell her the news and of course her girlfriends, who had all met Rizwan and declared him “dreamy.” Her friend, Wanda, who liked to call him “Riz,” said that if Sahar didn’t want him, she, Polish Wanda, would don a hijab and start calling herself Fatima.
She switched on the television set and turned to CNN. There was a little boy cowering behind a man against the wall of building. They were being shot at by Israeli soldiers. Mesmerized, Sahar watched as the boy screamed in pure terror and the man attempted to shield him and suddenly, so suddenly that Sahar was not sure what she just witnessed, the little boy stopped moving. His body had jerked a few times, and then he lay still next to the older man, who was now swaying from side to side as if in a Sufi trance. Sahar quickly hit the mute button and was told that the footage she had just seen was taken by a French journalist who had filmed a shoot-out that took place earlier that day in Ramallah in the West Bank. The little boy was twelve years old, the man was his unarmed father and the Israelis had shot both, killing the child. Sahar’s hand flew to her mouth. Her throat was suddenly dry, her heart was pounding and though she was not at all sure what it meant other than the obvious horror, she knew that somehow it had made all the difference.
By the end of November, Sahar knew Rizwan was not coming back anytime soon. Two Israeli soldiers had been captured by Palestinian gunmen, brutally tortured, their lifeless bodies strung up by their heels in a way that was reminiscent of medieval times and then dragged through the streets of a Palestinian town to the accompaniment of a cheering crowd. The little boy who had been killed the month before had been buried in a hysterical ceremony, his small coffin borne through the streets of Ramallah on a sea of shoulders to his final resting place. He was declared a martyr for the Palestinian cause. Sahar saw so many children, their baby faces contorted in rage as they raised their fists in the air in defiance of
Israel. All Palestinian men and boys were being called upon to martyr themselves in the name of God. Paradise was beckoning. There was no turning back now. Sahar stopped listening to the news. It was all bad, so what would she be missing? She had been slowly growing numb. Whenever she did bother to turn on her set, she viewed the violent images that flickered across her TV screen with dispassionate eyes. She watched programs that helped her mind whir to a gentle stop. Fortunately, there was a vast selection from which to choose. She took to falling asleep clutching the remote control.
Rizwan’s mother called her every other day and sobbed into the phone.
“I consider you like a daughter,” she cried to Sahar. “You will always be my daughter. Rizwan loved you.”
Loved? He wasn’t dead…was he? Sahar wondered.
By Christmas Sahar was frantically reaching back to
remember if Rizwan said anything to her that would give a clue as to his intentions. Maryam was now in touch with Mohammed Chip, who had developed dysentery and
wanted badly to come home for the holidays. He had drained their savings account, and handed out cash like candy to the friends he had made in Mecca. He kept apologizing to Maryam. She wired him enough money for a plane
ticket home, and he was at her side, thinner, sheepish, and very grateful, by New Year’s Eve. When asked about Rizwan, he shook his head and said, “Rizwan feels compelled to stay. He doesn’t feel he can leave without making a
“With what?” his tearful mother said. “His blood?”
“Did, did he talk about me at all?” Sahar asked in embarrassment. It was the first time she had addressed Mohammed Chip directly. Mohammed Chip hesitated. Sahar saw a look pass between him and Maryam. “Of course he did, all the time,” he said brightly. Sahar squeezed his hand. She knew he was lying but was grateful for the lie. Later when they had a moment to be alone, Maryam handed Sahar a cigarette and lit it for her.
“I don’t smoke,” Sahar protested.
“Not a bad time to start,” Maryam replied. She took a long drag and closed her eyes, leaning against the splintered wood of the tool shed. “That husband of mine is a nut,” she said. Sahar nodded in agreement. She threw the barely smoked cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out with the toe of her boot.
“Rizwan isn’t crazy,” Maryam said. “But he’s never liked it here, even though he was the only one who was born here. We all embraced this country, held on to it like a life raft but he always felt…disenfranchised. He was careful to hide that from you until he was sure you cared for him. But Sahar, it is safe to say that Rizwan in his own way is fanatical; especially when it comes to defending the underdogs. In this country, everywhere we look we see winners. Everywhere my brother looked he saw the oppressed, victims of a white patriarchy. We tried, believe me, we tried to show him a more balanced view but it never worked. Now he’s over there, in the thick of it.”
“What are you saying?” Sahar asked.
“You think he’s going to stay here and watch people he thinks are being victimized die on TV?”
“He wouldn’t have gone over there if it hadn’t been for your loon—your husband.”
“Sahar did you happen to see the date when he issued the ticket?”
“What are you saying?”
“Chip went over there because of Rizwan.” But Sahar had already turned away. She ran to the house and asked Rizwan’s mother, who confirmed what Maryam had told her.
It seemed, unbeknownst to Sahar, that it had been Rizwan’s idea for Mo-Chip to go on Umraa and, further, to stay on and explore the area. Rizwan, being bogged down with work obligations and also, not wanting to leave Sahar’s side, had kept delaying his departure. Ultimately, “he heeded the call,” his brother in law said.
“You must know where he is,” she said to Chip later,
after she was done, what Rizwan would have described
When Sahar looked back on it, all the signs of Rizwan’s sudden flight to the Holy Land were there. He was more devout than she, more traditional. He had always drawn lines, “us and them”. Us, being beleagured Muslims, them being anyone who voted for Bush. But so what? she had thought whenever it occurred to her that they might differ ideologically down the line. As he said, having faith does not mean being a zealot. The heart of her pain lay in one thing alone: that she did not know him. That she might have fallen in love with a stranger.
Thirty minutes to midnight and 2001, Sahar heard Rizwan’s weary voice saying hello.
“It’s me, Sahar.”
There was silence.
“What time is it there?” she asked.
“It’s nine o’clock in the morning,” he said. Sahar closed her eyes.
“Happy new year,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said. “You also.”
“So, what’s 2001 like?” she said, trying to be light. “You’ve already seen it. I thought you could give me a heads up, you know what to expect.”
“It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be,” he said. “Especially here.”
“You sound funny, Riz,” she said. Tears sprung to her eyes.
She heard noises in the background, shouting and a rapid tapping sound.
“Look I can’t talk. It’s bad,” Rizwan said.
“Where are you?” “In a camp, a refugee camp in the West Bank.”
“Whose phone is this?”
Sahar was suddenly nauseated. She felt the blood pounding in her ears. Of course, she thought. Doesn’t it always come down to this?
“Who the fuck is Janine?” Sahar asked, cutting him off. “Some Semitic slut you met out there? Some stinky activist slut?” By now she was screaming.
There was a confused silence. Sahar could tell she had crossed a line.
“Jenin is the name of the camp I’m living in,” Rizwan said after a moment. “There is no running water, there are tanks aimed directly at a clearing where children play soccer. Sometimes one of them gets shot. It’s lovely really. A honeymoon spot.”
Sahar began to laugh. She could hear herself. She sounded mad.“Sahar don’t call me,” Rizwan said and that stopped her laughing cold.
“Why? Are we breaking up?”
“I don’t know.”
“At least have the guts to dump me,” she cried. She heard Rizwan chuckle.
“What, what’s so funny?” she sniffed.
“I think it’s safe to say that is one thing I don’t have the guts to do,” he said.
“So you’re expecting me to do it? You asshole!” she cried, furious.
“Yes, Sahar. I am asking you to do it for me,” he said quietly. Sahar heard mourning in his voice, death. That was all she had, the clues in his voice. She couldn’t know what he was thinking. He was lost to her.
“Why? I don’t understand why?”
“I don’t think I’m coming back, Sahar. I’ve been a jerk, you have to dump me. I’ve left you hanging,” he said. The background noises were becoming louder.
“You’re a coward!” Sahar said. “You are a fool!”
“Sahar, I don’t expect you to understand,” Rizwan said.
“No, of course not, Rizwan. I have no passion, no conviction because I don’t want to die for a cause. Well, I don’t! And I don’t want to kill anyone either!”
“Sahar!” She heard the sob in his voice. “Please don’t think that of me,” Rizwan pleaded. “That isn’t what I’m doing here.”
“Then what are you doing there? Away from me, your family, your friends?” she demanded. She no longer recognized her own voice. It was harsh and old and bitter.
“You’re an American, Rizwan. Come home and dump me on American soil.”
“Bye Sahar, I’ll see you. You can’t miss me,” Rizwan said. “I’ll be the guy with all the raisins.” And the line went dead.