Mahnoor wished she was returning to their home town under happier circumstances. She and her father had crossed two states to attend the funeral of his best friend, Khalid. Once they had made their way across the expansive parking lot of the recently renovated mosque where friends and family had gathered for the funeral, Mahnoor circled around the building trying to spot the entrance to the women’s’ section.
She swung open the heavy glass door, looking up at the intricate calligraphy decorating the surrounding reddish-brown bricks. She remembered excitedly running into the men’s section after Friday prayers to find their father who was often the last to leave. He used to sit and quietly read Qur’an in the farthest corner, leaning against the wall next to a tiny wooden bookcase, and as soon as he spied six-year-old Mahnoor, he would lift her up and plant her next to him. Mahnoor would whisper what she thought were throaty, foreign sounds, pretending that she too was reading the Holy Book, and her father would smile, amused by her mimicry.
Those afternoons seemed like a lifetime ago. Now plush, cream-colored carpeting lay on the floor and a chandelier fit for a ballroom dangled from an impossibly high ceiling. The tinkling crystal sparkled when hit by the sunlight streaming in from the glass dome above, beckoning Mahnoor. The serene moment was short-lived.
“LADY section, downstairs,” came a thunderous welcome by a scowling, bearded gentleman who would not look the startled Mahnoor in the eye.
Mahnoor gave her father a hurried wave and scuttled down the steep steps. She counted to ten, suppressing the string of retorts that came to her. She reminded herself that it was foolish to linger in the men’s section when she had come to attend a funeral, but the main floor had just looked so elegant and inviting. She began to wonder what renovations had taken place below, but once she had descended the stairs, she realized that everything looked familiar. Chalkboards, whirring ceiling fans, and rickety pupil desks with seventies’ graffiti carved into the wooden chair backs. Grey, unadorned stone walls, dim lighting and not a single window. There was one addition though: a large monitor on the wall covered with a film of dust.
Mahnoor completed the funeral supplications, paid her respects to the grieving relatives, and read Qur’an for a few minutes. By now it was time for the afternoon prayer. A row of elderly ladies lined up in anticipation of the call to prayer (adhan). They patiently waited for ten minutes before one of Khalid’s sisters put down her rosary and complained. “My knees are giving way. We are so shut away down here that we could be standing until midnight waiting to hear the call!”
Just then, the adhan crackled over the P.A. system. Mahnoor positioned herself in between two worshippers and her eyes fell on a rather curious trio in the front row. Two middle-aged ladies in sarees flanked a tall blond girl wearing skinny jeans, loudly instructing her in heavily accented English how to pray properly. As soon as the prayer was over, the girl yanked off a thin strip of orange fabric, revealing thick blonde tresses, and tore up the stairs looking as though she was struggling to suppress tears. Mahnoor wondered if the two women had admonished more than guide the distraught girl, or perhaps they had criticized her attire. She wished she could approach the poor girl but hesitated, not wanting to appear to be interfering.
Mahnoor hurried up the narrow staircase to quickly re-unite with her father before crowds began to form. She spotted him outside in the parking lot with a host of Uncle Khalid’s relatives around him, thanking him for making such a long journey for the deceased patriarch.
“Look who I found,” said Mahnoor’s father, pulling away from the crowd to greet his daughter. “This is Kazim, Khalid’s grandson. Doesn’t he have Khalid’s eyes? And this is Shauna, his lovely new wife.” He motioned towards the young woman Mahnoor had seen making a hasty exit from the women’s section.
“I think I saw you downstairs,” smiled Mahnoor. Shauna stuttered a response, her teeth chattering from the cold. She inched closer to her new husband who took off his jacket, gently placing it over her shoulders. She thanked him with her eyes. Mahnoor wondered if they had even finished college yet.
The young groom then tried to cover Shauna’s plunging neckline with her scarf but she elbowed him away. Was he really going to address the issue of modesty so awkwardly with this newly minted convert bride? Mahnoor racked her brain for a neutral topic. “I’d love to see your wedding pictures, “ she said.
“Neither of my parents came,” Shauna responded with a scowl and loosely tied the scarf around her neck. “My dad is kind of anti-Islamic.”
“Well,” Mahnoor replied lowering her voice to a whisper, “maybe it’s the fact that you married so young?”
“No. That’s not it,” Shawna said firmly, squashing Mahnoor’s conciliatory excuse. “All my sisters got married in their teens. It’s just that my dad thinks women are mistreated in Islam.”
As Mahnoor tried to formulate a response, a handful of Kazim’s relatives who had been standing nearby, decided to chime in at that moment. “Oh, that’s because your father doesn’t about Islam. If only he knew the truth!” said one of the uncles disappointedly.
“Exactly! Islam gave women civil rights long before the West,” piped in another. Mahnoor was reminded of a fairground show she had seen years ago with bright blue and pink cartoon characters who would come alive and play loud clanging music every time a dollar was placed in a slot. Shauna, meanwhile, fiddled with a stray lock of hair and looked from one impassioned face to the next, wondering what button she had pressed to animate her new in-laws so unexpectedly.
Mahnoor looked behind her and saw a line of black headscarves bobbing up the staircase. Elderly ladies blinked at the sunshine as they came up the steps. She looked over at Shauna who had clasped her young husband’s hand and was walking over to a rather dilapidated Chevy. The scarf had slipped off again, but this time Shauna did not pull it back up over her head. She let go of Kazim’s hand, scrunched the cloth up tightly into a ball and thrust it deep inside her pocket.
What would I say to Shauna’s father if I were to ever meet him? Of course Islam gave us women civil rights, but we just naturally choose to pray in a dungeon.
Shereen Hussain was raised in England. She has an undergraduate degree in French and English literature from the University of London and a graduate degree in education from San Francisco State University. You can read her poems and non-fiction stories at www.aunty-g.blogspot.com.
Photo Credit: Marc