Narmin and I have been friends ever since we could remember seeing as we were the only Muslim families in our neighborhood. But I always wondered if our families hadn’t made that effort to introduce themselves and Narmin and I hadn’t been drawn together on purpose, whether we would have become friends on our own. Did our families become friends out of convenience or choice? It’s hard to say but there were two reasons why I think that Narmin would have made a bad impression on me if we had met any other way. One -she was bossy. I mean everyone, even my parents could see that. I could remember countless embarrassing times where my mother would say right in front us that Narmin shouldn’t boss me around like that or guilt me into letting her borrow stuff I was afraid she’d lose or just keep forever. Narmin could have been a real bully for all I know, not a physical one of course, but an emotional one. She made fun of you for being afraid to try new things or made you feel dumb if you hadn’t heard of a certain song or show before. I wouldn’t have begged my parents for so many useless toys if Narmin hadn’t showed them off to me. My parents told me they didn’t want me to be a sissy, pushover and that I needed to be strong in a world where everyone was constantly fighting to bring you down and crush your faith. But I wasn’t interested in anyone’s pity or concern. I didn’t want my parents to force Narmin to apologize in a cutesy manner and hug me till my bones crack. I had a guaranteed friend since birth, which a lot of people don’t have the luxury to have.
The other reason she got on my nerves was that she wanted to be the first at everything, even stupid meaningless things. She had to be first to the door, first to the table. She learned how out to ride a bike first by refusing to let her parents keep on the training wheels. She went to a concert first, the Spice Girls, even though I was a bigger fan than she was, but my parents hated them with a passion. She went on a plane first. She got her period first. The list is endless, but why was being first so important to her? Probably some psychological after effect of being the youngest or something, but what did I know, I was an only child. I didn’t have anyone to compete with for the TV or bathroom or last scoop of ice cream. If I turned out spoiled, it will have been my parents’ fault since they willingly chose to only have one child. To both of my grandparents’ dismay, my parents decided that after coming from big families of 8 and 9 kids, they wanted to raise one good child with enough love and attention in this difficult environment we live in.
But flaws aside, Narmin was my best and oldest friend. She made my life interesting, so when she and her family went on a trip to visit her brother and his wife in Philadelphia for a week and then head to New York for another week, I was devastated. I didn’t live in a neighborhood where I had a lot of choices of people to hang out with, because all we had were young couples with babies, elementary school age kids, and the “bad kids” I wasn’t allowed to be around. Without Narmin, all I had to occupy my time was my DVDs of Murder She Wrote, school supply shopping and my slow rabbit, Munchkin. Oh and trudging through my summer reading assignment, ‘Othello.’ I was sure that when Narmin got back I’d have souvenirs to look forward to in exchange for my retelling of the play in plain English. It wasn’t that Narmin was dumb or anything; she was just incredibly lazy. I wouldn’t want her to start of freshman English with an F.
On the Wednesday before school started, my aunt Nora came over for her weekly tea with my mother. She’s not really my aunt, I should say, but she acts like one. My mother treated her like her younger sister, helping her through university and finding her way through pharmacy school, balancing her finances and all that stuff that she should have been able to do by her age. Aunt Nora really needed someone like my mother to look after her, because she was kind of an idealistic, carefree person that still expected everything to fall into her lap. She was always on some new diet and into some new guy, but neither ever worked out for her. Her parents died though when she was younger and she used to spend a ton of time at the local Golden Hills mosque after she converted and was feeling really depressed and lost at Friday prayers when my mother met her. I guess my mother felt bad for Aunt Nora or maybe missed being around her own sisters who all lived out of state, so she was so patient with her. I, however, didn’t have much patience for Aunt Nora because she was a huge gossiper and really bad joke teller.
I had come in to fix myself a peanut butter sandwich in the middle of reading Othello, when I heard Aunt Nora and my mother from the living room talking amidst the sound of clinking spoons and glasses. I was hoping to be as quiet as possible so I wouldn’t have to endure talking to Aunt Nora. As I opened the fridge, I suddenly stopped when the conversation turned from credit cards, cabbage soup and cramps to Narmin.
“So guess who’s gone the scarf way?” Aunt Nora said in a sing song voice.
“What?” my mother said. “Ay, sometimes I think I speak better English than you, Nora.”
“No, no, no, just listen, so I saw Narmin, your little daughter’s best friend wearing a hijab at the supermarket the other day and I couldn’t believe it. Is it just me or is this news? I didn’t see that one coming,” Aunt Nora said.
Hearing the words “Narmin” and “hijab” in the same sentence made me choke back a laugh. As a gossiper, my aunt Nora says lots of things that turn out to be wrong, really wrong. One time she said the local sheikh’s wife was pregnant again and told everyone to congratulate her. She wasn’t, she was still fat… My mother always just shook her head and clicked her tongue whenever Aunt Nora put on her “I’ve-got-something-to-dish” face on, but she’d listen anyway and make murmuring sounds at appropriate times. Something about Aunt Nora gave my mother a surprising self-restraint over her natural desire to chastise people. That was one admirable thing about her, I guess. All my mother would say after Aunt Nora was gone was “May God guide her.”
When it came to this latest rumor, I knew I could safely eliminate it from reality, because if there was one thing Narmin would be the last to do, it would be to put on the hijab. We only talked about hijab a few times before, but I knew she was too stubborn to comply to looking like an old village woman. She couldn’t bother to keep it on when we went to our Sunday school at the mosque when we were younger. It was part of our school uniforms to wear this ugly white scarf with a fat pin under our chins, letting the ends hang down like a wizard’s beard. She would never pin hers, preferring to drape it around her shoulders, which of course made it slip past her bangs every five minutes. Narmin also told me she was so “buddy buddy” with so many guys already that she felt it was silly to suddenly pretend like they didn’t know what her hair looked like after all these years. And after her recent revelation at her house about her desire to have a boyfriend, this just seemed completely out of character for her. At the very least she would have told me first.
When I thought about it, I would be more likely to wear the hijab than Narmin would. I knew my mother cared about the hijab, not so subtly encouraging both of us–both mostly me– to wear it by trying to convince us that it would be a nice rite of passage, like the Muslim version of a Sweet 16. I told her if she threw in a Mercedes, then maybe we’d have a deal.
My mother was a practical, punctual working woman in the pharmacy business. She took everything very seriously and wore her hijab like she liked her coffee-black and Italian. I got used to seeing her with it on from an early age, because I always felt like it belonged to her, that it was something that simply fit her personality. She used to dress up fancy when she was younger pre-hijab era. I found those old photos in my parent’s room from her university days that showed she used to acknowledge there were other colors in the spectrum. Now, the only interest in fashion my mother showed was her passion for silky, creamy Italian scarves, otherwise, she believed there were more important things in life than appearance and that’s what hijab came to ensure we realized. As for my father, he never denied the religious significance, but I think me wearing the hijab was a bit unsettling to him, because it would make him have to face the fact that I was growing up and becoming a woman. He didn’t take me starting to wear bras too well and that was an awkward enough conversation that we all barely survived.
Narmin’s mother on the other hand was a housewife who took care of Narmin and her older brother, Bilal, the way a cool nanny would. It was always fun and games at their house, with weird development activities and rituals to promote innovative thinking and self-actualization. I think she took all those self-help and new-agey parenting books way too seriously. Her father was a businessman and did lots of things with numbers and data that bored us to death and made him leave town a lot. What mattered was he made money and bought his wife and kids gifts all the time even if it wasn’t a birthday or Eid. He got stuff for me too, because he considered me his third child, which was pretty cool. Narmin’s mother only just began wearing the hijab a few years back in what I thought was just some phase, but she has stuck with it so far. Lucky for her, Narmin’s mother looked great in anything. The hijab framed her face in a way that highlighted her hazel and brown colored eyes that used to creep me out but later were breathtaking to look at. She would style her hijab in a way that matched her outfits and sometime showed her neck a bit and let dangly earrings peek out. I don’t know if my mother approved of it, because when the Ahmeds did come over to our house, I noticed Narmin’s mother wore it the traditional way my mother did. I only wished my mother was that stylish, because maybe she would have been a better role model for me.
I pulled out the bread bag slowly and crouched behind the counter so I could get a good view and hear the conversation better. This had to be Aunt Nora’s juiciest scoop yet.
“Are you sure, Nora?” my mother said, while adding a lump of sugar in her cup. “You might have seen someone else. Narmin just came back from her trip with her family, I believe.”
“Kareema, I’m telling you, I know what Narmin looks like and it was her!” Aunt Nora said in her scratchy voice with just a hint of an accent revealing her Brooklyn upbringing. “I mean you can’t miss a teenager with that kind of –” she gestured in front of her chest.
“NORA!” my mother said, sighing and looking up to the ceiling.
Aunt Nora shrugged and bit into a biscotti. “I’m just sayin’, I say what see and I see what I say.”
“Well I think if what you say is true then we should say alhamdulillah and mashallah for her taking that step to preserve her modesty as a Muslim woman should,” my mother said, after a long sip of tea. “It’s so difficult these days with all these temptations and advertisements from the media and the magazines for these girls to understand the beauty of modesty and the hijab, you know? It’s not like we can force them either. This is probably the only time I will say this, but I just hope Marwa will soon follow her example.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Mhmm,” Aunt Nora said. “She j-”
“And I mean that for you too, Nora,” my mother added.
Aunt Nora smiled sheepishly and brushed back her messy curls that were being held together by one measly bobby pin.
“Oh pooh, you know nobody looks at me in that way. Why else am I still single at this age?” she said.
“Well,”my mother dabbed a napkin on her lip delicately. “I could think of several reasons.”
While the two of them burst out laughing, I sat still trying to figure out if I actually had something to worry about or not. I had a weird, sick feeling in my stomach, the kind you get when you feel like you’ve been betrayed. A peanut butter sandwich wasn’t sounding so good anymore.