It was raining as Jannah drove downtown. With a kind of shock she noticed that the leaves weren’t green anymore. They were yellow, light orange, burnt reds. Many of the leaves were already on the ground. It was Fall. When had that happened? She felt that terrible realization that came over all people who lived in this part of upstate New York every year: Summer was over and winter was coming.
She took a turn and drove straight through from the outskirts up into the middle of the city. It wasn’t the best area, but definitely not the city’s worst. Just full of working class poor, students and immigrants. Houses were three-story walkups with big stoops, businesses consisted of a few bars, usually filled with rowdy college students on the weekends, a desi-mart, dollar store, Arab foods grocery and a popular pizza joint.
It was also where the city’s only inner-city mosque was located.
176 Main Street* had once been a warehouse. From the front it looked like a storefront. It’s all-glass facade was covered by paper and a single dingy sign was pasted above the doorway. Masjid As-Shukr ~ House of Thankfulness ~. She knew that sign, she remembered designing it in Microsoft Publisher, printing it out on one of the big plotters at the computer software company where she once worked. She’d felt guilty at first and had asked her boss if it was ok to use the printer for something personal. “Sure,” her boss had said “as long as no one noticed or it became a habit.” She took that line and had run with it farther than she probably should have. The sign had now become the logo for the top story on all the local news channels. She flinched every time she saw it on television and sighed as she passed it again.
She remembered when they had first bought the building. Everyone had thought they were crazy. A Mosque? A Mosque right in Allenby? What did they need another Mosque for, everyone had asked. They already had a little apartment across from the main public library for jumahs and prayers. They hadn’t believed there was a Muslim population in Allenby and if there were still a few there that ‘hadn’t gotten out’ they could still come to the Mosque in the suburbs. “They could take a bus”, she remembered one Pakistani doctor saying to her in a particularly snooty manner.
Her family too had been living in the city for over 20 years but had always had to hike it to the nice suburban Mosque located in Scarborough. It was funny how no one in those days could acknowledge that there were Muslims living in the inner-city and that they were poor. But then, they didn’t realize the bus was a full hour and a half with two transfers either.
With a loan from an Islamic trust her father had bought the mosque for $20,000. Then, her father had gotten to work. He was always good with building. He had come here with a solid education as a Chemistry professor and had used it to build a decent life for him and his family. Starting in the 80′s he had bought old run down houses and fixed them up, sold them or kept them as rental properties. It was a long way to come for the little village boy from India who liked science. That was one thing at least her father always had, thought Jannah, vision.
She remembered first walking in to the place after the sale. It had been a grimy, dirt covered, disgusting mess. She couldn’t remember if there had been rats. She was sure she had blocked it out if there were. She thought back to those first days. So many people had come every day to help. She had sent out emails to get the youth to come out and help paint. She remembered everyone laughing as they painted the front rooms and one of the brothers getting yelled at by her Dad for something and as soon as he had walked away, all of them peeling with laughter. She remembered telling her father to make sure they didn’t put the women behind the three pillars standing in the back. How naive she’d been, she thought with derision. She hadn’t known what was to come.
Many people had come to visit, curious to see the “new Mosque”. Rich Muslims from the suburbs drove up in their fancy cars and parked right on Main Street to take a look. She remembered walking, running through with her siblings, each of them talking about what each room should be. A kitchen, a meeting room, this could be classrooms. While looking deceptively like a storefront from the main street, the building stretched back a full city block and had a basement, two main floors and few half floors. She still had no idea how the blueprint worked, but it was a maze and certainly a huge building.
“You guys! Check this out! This is going to be the library, and we can have nice shelves here and cushions, beanbags and everyone can sit and read and it’ll be just like Barnes n’ Noble. Better!” What dreams she’d had. Those dreams she knew had died long ago. So why was she thinking about them. She rubbed her face wearily, and dry-eyed she pulled to the side and parked.
She didn’t bother to lock her car even in this neighborhood. The Ford Taurus was battered and bruised enough not to warrant a second look. She was about a block down and over from the Mosque and started walking towards the Imam’s house. She’d dressed with care, hoping she would look somewhat stylish, un-oppressed and smart at the courthouse. She looked around vaguely wondering if there was anyone watching her. She never seemed to be able to tag anyone, even after all the episodes of X-Files she had watched over the years.
The Imam’s house was a two story walkup next to an empty lot. She rang the topmost bell out of the four that were there. Why they had four bells for two apartments she could never say. But the topmost one had some childish writing with an arrow next to it that said “up—-> stairs”. Then she noticed the door was open. She thought that was odd because she knew they locked it religiously to keep out all the reporters. She opened it and took the stairs to the top floor. There the door was slightly open and the keys were in it. She wondered if the Imam’s wife had gone out somewhere. She knocked and opened the door slightly. “Salaam? Anyone home?”, she called out.
She opened the door wider and saw Sister Zainab standing in the doorway of the living room. “Come in, Sister Jannah”. Jannah then noticed the baby on the floor at her feet looking at her intently. Jannah decided she was unwilling to enter any more in hopes of making her task easier.
“Oh Sr. Zainab are you ready to go? This is a good time to go to the courthouse now.” Zainab looked at her silently. Emotion fell over her face and she began to wring her hands. “I cannot, I cannot”. Jannah took in a big breath and started in on her spiel. She tried to keep it light. “Oh I heard the lawyer called you today, you know he wants you to go to the trial, it’ll be very good.”
“I cannot, no I do not feel it like going”
She tried again. “We can go for half an hour only, you know just go in and out.”
Zainab shook her head and turned away. Frustration filled Jannah as she continued to plead and wheedle some more. It made a difference damnit, she knew it made a difference. The jury were people too. If some of them saw the “terrorist’s” wife, his kids supporting him, it would make a difference. She was sure of it. Her last plea, “Your husband needs you” made Sr. Zainab raise her hands to her face as she wept.
It was different today. Real emotion was present, so was fear, but now with despair. The day before Jannah had tried the same thing over the phone. She had heard the fear then too. She had been suspicious enough to talk to her father about them. “It’s like she’s scared of something, Dad. Why wouldn’t she want to go to her husband’s trial. She just sounded scared. Maybe someone said something to her…”
“That is what I suspect.”
“That the FBI or someone has been talking to her. Saying things to her.”
But today she felt the emotion. For some reason Zainab didn’t want to face the trial, to see, understand what was going on. She just couldn’t handle it.
“Ok, it’s okayâ€¦”, she said now. “Maybe some other day you can come. I’ll just go…”
“Wait Sr. Jannah, Let me pray first. Did you pray Dhuhr? I will go pray.”
She left hurriedly to go to another room to pray and Jannah walked inside and picked up the baby. “Let’s go into the living room shall we.”
The living room wasn’t much, a small room that once had some ratty old furniture and a broken TV was now mostly empty. The carpet was dirty as if the vacuum had been broken for awhile. She set the baby down next to the plastic carton that held some toys. The baby’s name was “for sure” in Arabic. The baby’s eight year old sister had wanted the name “Aliyah”. For some reason, Aliyah was only the name Jannah she could remember. The baby started cooing and trying to play with her purse. Jannah absently gave her some toys on the floor.
She didn’t want to get attached to this baby. Eight months ago she had been the one next to Sr. Zainab in the hospital when she had given birth to her. She had held her hand, heard her screams. Told her to think about Allah and make Dhikr. She had given the decision to have Zainab induced early because of the baby’s heartbeat problem. Zainab had no one left and somehow Fate had put her, Jannah, in that position of being the only one there that night. That had been the most traumatic night of her life. She had seen the baby come out and then never again. She had left a week later for a different continent. But she’d never been able to forget that night.
Zainab came back and smiled. “You stay for a while sister, the children come home soon.”
Jannah checked her anger. “I can’t, if you don’t want to go I should go now.”
“Wait…..I need to, to ask you about disks, computer come, come “
Jannah followed her into another room. This one had a metallic bed (the one she had bought for them a year ago), the mattress that went with it, but no sheets, a dresser, an obviously broken computer and clothes discarded everywhere. On the floor were various things, including a suitcase with papers and CDs. She picked up the CDs which all seemed to belong to the HP Pavillion sitting drunkedly on an old dresser.
“This is for spreadsheets, you know money. This is a writing program. This is an encyclopedia…” Jannah recited.
“What is an encyclopedia?”
How do you explain an encyclopedia to someone who had no idea what an encyclopedia was. “You know those lots of books together, and you can look up things and find out about them.”
Zainab nodded unsurely. Jannah picked up some others. “This is junk, AOL, printer…”
“Oh I threw the printer out.”
“Ok you don’t need this.” She sorted through all the CDs.
“What should I do about children’s books that I don’t need?”
“Umm you can take them to the Mosque.”
Her suspicion that Zainab was packing up was definite now. The almost empty living room. Sorting through CDs..children’s books? Did her husband tell her to start cleaning up now so that if he was deported she could follow? Or if he was sentenced, she would go to her family back in her country with the kids? Did someone else tell her, instruct her? Could she have thought it up on her own? Jannah looked at her speculatively now and sighed. She was getting too used to the ups and downs, the suspicions and paranoia. “Ok I have to go, let me get my…purse”
She ran towards the living room, grabbed her purse and squeezed the baby’s cheeks. “InshaAllah I’ll see you soon, Sr. Zainab” and with a smile she left.
She hurried to the car using her purse to shield her face from the rain, got in and headed for the courthouse.
*all names and addresses have been changed to protect the innocent, or the guilty