First published in ROOM 39.1: WOMEN OF COLOUR, Sahar Mustafah’s fiction is a balm we return to this week.
Sometimes Iman knew the arabiyat who sat across from her in her office, applying for food stamps. She’d seen them in line at Jerusalem Bakery on 95th Street, buying cans of hummus and a dozen pocket bread with crumpled single dollar bills. Or, she recognized them from weekly mosque classes where other villagers, transplanted like her and her family to America, could find some solace in the company of clanswomen while reciting Qur’an together. Iman might nod at them or give them a small wave; most times she usually pretended she hadn’t noticed them, saving them their dignity, but then they would pull her toward them and kiss her on both cheeks, glad to see her.
In her office, Iman translated the application for public aid and showed these women where to sign on the forms. She watched them delicately press a pen, with the logo SAFe wrapped around it, along the solid line. They looked anxious, carefully signing their names in English like children learning cursive for the first time. They prayed out loud that inshallah—the State of Illinois would not deny them so their husbands would not have to find more work and be away for more hours. They told Iman that this was not what they had expected when they came to the States.
Iman suspected some of the arabiyat did not have a legitimate need, but were pressured by scheming husbands who claimed to be religious men yet felt no remorse about abusing the system. This government is full of kuffar, one woman unwittingly told Iman, scratching her hijab and blowing her nose into a rumpled tissue. A dark-eyed boy tugged at the woman’s purse.
“How can it be a sin to take wealth from sinners?” she asked Iman then slapped her son’s hand away from her purse. “Bas! Enough!”
Other times, Iman wished she did not know the woman fidgeting in the worn chair across from her, one eye swollen and the color of a ripened fig, or broken lips with scabs like the skin of plums. But, Palestinian clans ran deep and extended far like sewer trenches in a refugee camp. Iman swallowed her shame as she gently listed the things the women could purchase with their LINK card: baby formula, toothpaste, milk.
Birth control pills were not eligible.
Still, Iman found that these women possessed a kind of grace that made them forget their own circumstances and turn their attention on her. They asked through busted lips about Iman’s mother and how her gallbladder surgery had gone, or whether her twin sons would be starting preschool soon. When the appointment was over, they always said, Inshallah khair; good things will come. Iman found herself grateful for this indomitable optimism.
Twenty years ago, Services for Arab Families opened the door of its tiny office next to an appliance warranty center. It sat in an industrial area near the Bridgeview mosque and a UPS central shipping plant. The agency’s skeletal staff had been devoted to assisting immigrant families in the Chicago area navigate bureaucracy. Iman had been working there for six years, and was proud to celebrate SAFe’s upcoming twentieth anniversary.
An idea struck her one morning as she watched her coworker Salwa tuck a cellphone into her hijab. It protruded in a rectangular outline like a pack of cigarettes rolled deeply above the bicep of a t-shirt. With free hands, Salwa could begin filing folders while reprimanding her teenage son who was in charge of their two younger sisters at home. Amused, Iman wondered how Salwa’s voice managed to flow up through her hidden cellphone.
“Wallah, wallah, if you don’t stop pestering your sister, I’ll call your baba,” Salwa threatened. She shuffled papers and searched for a pen. A whiny, faraway voice came back through the speaker. “Mama, it’s Renahs’ fault.”
Salwa looked up at Iman and made a scribbling motion with her fingers. Iman reached over Salwa’s desk, pulled out the top drawer that was nearly obstructed by Salwa’s swollen belly and fished out a bundle of pens.
“I’m sorry,” Salwa mouthed to Iman. After a few more minutes of scolding her son, she gave him a stern goodbye and stood up. “Samhini, Iman,” she said, rubbing her lower back. “At six months, I’m operating on half a brain.” She looked at the pens. “Now, where did I leave my phone?” Iman pointed to her coworker’s ear and Salwa threw her head back and laughed. “I told you,” she said. “Half a brain.”
As Salwa extracted her phone from her headscarf, the idea dawned on Iman. “What do you think of hijab donations?” Iman asked Salwa. “A collection drive for headscarves?”
“Mashallah! That’s a great idea!” Salwa beamed at her. She rubbed her belly in small circles.
“I don’t think the agency has ever done anything like it,” Iman said.
Satisfaction bloomed in Iman’s chest as she jotted down contacts to make. A few of the arabiyat she’d assisted this week wore fraying headscarves and likely considered purchasing new hijab more than a little frivolous when there were bills to pay. Other clothing donations would be welcome too, but a hijab drive was an exclusive gift for the wives and mothers who’d placed their own needs behind their families’. “I think it’s a great idea,” Salwa declared again, then pressed a fist to her mouth and belched.
By noon, Iman found a generous printer to design flyers with a silhouette of a woman wearing a headscarf, her arms raised in praise to the sky. She also arranged for the Bridgeview Mosque to host the event in its parking lot. They would set up long tables for collection, and if it rained, they could move indoors to a community room.
Happily, she motioned for a woman in a black abaya to have a seat. The woman had been standing outside the office, waiting for someone to open the agency at eight o’clock.
“I can’t afford a babysitter,” she explained to Iman, sitting upright. The wide sleeves of her abaya cascaded down her thin wrists as she spoke. “I need to get back before my little ones wake up.”
Iman nodded and swivelled her chair to face her computer screen.
It was a perfect day for the drive. Only a few innocuous clouds streaked the sky. The Bridgeview Mosque was a small building with a tiny weather-beaten black dome and minaret. Its windows were its most impressive feature: the arched frames held turquoise-stained glass panels.
Twenty volunteers showed up for the drive, including Salwa’s children. Kifah, an agent who had been at SAFe the longest, moved around the parking lot, waving at people with a clipboard. She peeped under each table, bracing hand against thigh, making sure there were water bottles and snacks for the volunteers. She wore a hijab with a blue and pink floral pattern like a Monet painting. Her navy abaya flared over her hips, like a bell slowly tolling when she walked. “Sabah el khair, ya habayib,” she called out. “Good morning, my darlings. May Allah bestow all of His blessings upon you for the good work you’re doing today.”
“Sabah el noor, ya Sayida Kifah,” the adult volunteers rang back like students performing rote.
They sipped from their coffee mugs and engaged in minor gossip while they awaited drop-offs. Most donations came from arabiyat zooming into the lot, quickly handing over a plastic bag of scarves while their children screamed in the backseat. A few of the women were the same clients Iman had helped fill out welfare forms; they showed up on foot, pushing a baby in a stroller and straddling a toddler on their hip. It was proof again of their unwavering optimism and that they conceived their lot was not the worst—elhamdulillah.
The steady stream of donations pleased Iman, and even Salwa managed almost a full day of work before plopping down in a portable folding chair. Her heavy breasts lay atop her belly when she sat.
During the last hour, a black Dodge Ram pulled up and parked on the curb. Iman stopped folding a pile of scarves and saw an old white woman cautiously hop down from the passenger side. The old woman opened the truck’s flat bed and carried a large box toward Iman’s donation table.
“Yazen! Sa’idha,” Iman called to Salwa’s son. “Help that lady!”
The old white woman handed Yazen the box and lightly tapped his shoulder in gratitude. She followed him to the table.
“I saw a flyer at Tony’s Supermarket,” she explained to Iman. “I spoke to some of my girlfriends and they managed to give me a little something to bring here today.” She gestured around the parking lot. “For your cause.”
“How generous of you,” Iman said, examining the contents of the box. Amarkan never ceased to amaze her.
The white woman clasped her liver-spotted hands as Iman riffled through sweaters, long skirts, and a half-dozen fancy scarves with paisley designs and bold geometric shapes. They looked like the ones fashionably draped around the mannequins at Macy’s.
“I hope these will do,” the woman said. She removed her sunglasses and looked at Iman with milky blue eyes. Her silver hair was neatly trimmed in a pixie and Iman could tell she had once been an attractive woman.
“They’re great, ma’am. Thank you very much.”
Iman was glad for new ones, let alone stylish ones. Not all of them were long enough to cover a woman’s head, but they could be used for warmth. At any rate, the arabiyat in need would make use of anything and not let a single piece of fabric go to waste—Iman was certain of this.
She filled out a tax-exempt receipt while the white woman prattled on.
“My son drove me,” she told Iman. “That’s him, waiting in the truck”.
Iman tore off the perforated slip from a pad.
“Mark served in I-rack and Afghan-uh-stan,” the old woman continued. “Three tours of duty. I’m so relieved he’s home now. Can you imagine how scared I was when he was gone? And for what? Some precious oil.”
Iman politely smiled, but stayed quiet. She extended the receipt. The white woman ignored it and leaned closer to Iman like she was about to divulge a secret. Iman quickly glanced over the woman’s shoulder. Her son stared past the hood of the truck. Uneasiness tugged at Iman’s chest. She looked over at Salwa whose eyes were closed and hands peacefully folded across her belly.
“He tells me things when he’s had too many beers,” the white woman whispered loudly. “I can’t shut him down, but I don’t want to listen, either. What can I do? I’m his mother.”
Iman held the slip of paper and listened. A few more cars had pulled up to make a deposit, and she vaguely heard the cheerful greetings pouring out of rolled-down windows.
“What’s your name, dear?” the white woman asked her.
“That’s lovely. Does it mean anything?”
“Faith,” Iman said. “It means faith.”
“That’s lovely, dear,” the woman said again, tapping her acrylic fingernails on the box flap. “I thought if I did this, it would be good for Mark. You know, for his spirit, she said. “Joanne left him a month ago and won’t let him see their son. Joanne—that’s his wife—found a sock in his duffel bag. It was full of hair. They were from the beards of men. Tally-ban who were killed.” The deep wrinkles around the woman’s eyes and mouth rippled in distress. Can you believe it, dear?”
Iman shook her head dumbly. She’d sat with her husband, evening after evening, watching Al Jazeera satellite news, making sure the twins were asleep before inviting the images of dead children into her living room. War had still been distant to her, despite the uncensored carnage she could easily access with a click of a remote control. But now, death and destruction became as palpable as the cardboard boxes, the tape dispensers, the hundreds of scarves splayed across the donation tables. It was her turn to clutch the white woman’s box. She needed to keep steady, unsure what to do next. She looked again at Salwa who blithely dozed amidst the clamour of volunteers laughing as they finished sealing boxes. An imam in a skullcap gestured to them to lower their voices as he shuffled inside to lead the dusk prayer.
The white woman looked beseechingly at Iman. “It’s a terrible thing, I know, but it’s important to forgive in this life. You know this, dear. Your name means faith, right? You said so.” The wrinkles around her mouth looked like cracked mud. “If we can’t forgive, how can we go on? We have to believe we can do better. Isn’t that right, dear?”
“I don’t know,” Iman said. She was not sure she had uttered it out loud, or if it had been a whisper like the rustling of the trees.
Car headlights came on at the stop signs on each corner of the block. The turquoise windows of the mosque soaked the dying light, turning them opal. Despite her heavy abaya, Iman felt cold. She looked at the white woman’s son, his hands gripping the steering wheel, keeping him anchored inside the car.
“Men do ugly things,” the woman said, dabbing at her face with a tissue she pulled from an oversized leather purse—too heavy, it seemed to Iman, for the woman’s frail wrist to bear. “I hope this helps your cause,” she said. She caressed the clothes once more like a farewell. Then she turned the flaps of the box down and slowly ambled away. Her son never once looked in Iman’s direction. He gunned the engine and drove off.
“Mashallah! That’s the biggest load we’ve gotten,” Kifah beamed, pointing with a tape dispenser that replaced her clipboard.
“I think we can call it a day! Look at poor Salwa! Ya haram!”
She squeezed Iman’s shoulder and returned to sealing boxes. Iman looked around. They had collected over three hundred scarves. She had never seen this many hijab in one place. A few scarves swathed the end of Iman’s table in a wild heap like they had just been discarded by tired arabiyat after a long day in public.
She pulled back the flaps of the white woman’s box and fished for the expensive and stylish scarves. They were gently used except for one with a price tag still attached. The old woman’s contribution alone would help a dozen arabiyat. But, they had suddenly become tainted to Iman, touched by an old white woman whose son had killed Muslims, had scoffed at and desecrated the corpses. She rubbed the silky fabric between her fingers then grabbed a tape dispenser and sealed the box. It was much lighter than she expected when she tossed it into a giant dumpster. The stench of half-eaten lunches and soured milk hovered above the rim.
As she walked back to the parking lot, the evening breeze picked up the hem of her abaya and the soft fabric swayed around her ankles. Iman considered what the white woman had said about her name—about having faith.
She turned the corner and hoped Allah might someday bequeath her with a bit of grace, too.