We woke that morning, the first day of what would be a very hot Ramadan in June, to find the police raiding Abu Jamal’s café. A dozen men, dressed more like construction workers than cops, loaded boxes of Nescafé instant coffee and Lipton tea into vans. They carried away glass shisha pipes the size of small children, and dumped mismatched cups and saucers into a large bin of shattered porcelain. Some led dogs on leashes—big majestic German shepherds and one runty beagle, who sniffed furiously around all the tables.
I might have slept through it. I might have woken up a few hours later to find Abu Jamal’s café closed, to be replaced a few months later with another Arab business—a falafel stand or a travel agency specializing in trips to Mecca. But Baba woke me up.
“Wake up, ya binti,” he said as he pushed our bedroom window open, the one that led out onto the apartment’s fire escape. “Shoof! They arrest that stupid Libyan.”
He climbed out onto the fire escape in his ratty old galabiya with his black hair sticking straight up. In the bed across from mine, my twin sister, Lina, put a pillow over her face and groaned.
“Hurry up, Amira,” Baba called to me. “Come see.” He sounded gleeful. He leaned against the railing and peered down to the street below to get a closer look. Baba didn’t like Abu Jamal, not since they got into a big argument over whose dictator was worse, Egypt’s or Libya’s. It escalated until Abu Jamal accused Egyptians of turning everyone into religious nuts. “Look at your wife!” he’d said. And that’s when Baba slammed his hand down on one of the plastic folding tables, right in the middle of Abu Jamal’s café, and shattered a plate filled with discarded olive pits. “It was just a plate,” Baba said when he returned home later that night. But that didn’t matter—ever since then, Baba had been banned. He was now forced to walk another three blocks to the next-nearest shisha café, and for that, he just couldn’t find it in him to forgive the stupid Libyan.
I pulled on a sweatshirt of Lina’s that she’d left lying on the floor and flipped the hood over my head to cover my hair before I stepped out onto the fire escape next to Baba. The approaching dawn spread like a great purple bruise over New York, but the café was illuminated by a streetlight as if by an interrogator’s lamp. The men with their dogs were milling in and out, talking into radios, and taking photographs. They were moving so fast—I wanted to call down to them, ask them to slow down, so that I could make sense of what I was seeing. Across the street, Imam Ghozzi, who volunteered as the custodian of the Islamic Center of Bay Ridge, swept dust and bits of trash off the sidewalk in front of the mosque as if nothing unusual were happening.
“What do you think he did?” I asked Baba.
“He probably steal money from little babies,” Baba said.
“It looks like they’re sniffing for bombs or drugs or something,” I said.
Baba blinked rapidly three times, like he does when he can’t hear. “Bombs? No, it’s nothing like that.” He took a step back from the fire escape.
I heard a rustling behind us and turned to find Mama standing at the window with her arms crossed. Her face was pink and glowing, and I could tell it was freshly scrubbed for prayer. She was wearing a long gray abaya and a white prayer veil.
“What’s going on out here?” she asked.
“Shoof, ya Maryam,” Baba said, “they are arresting the stupid Libyan! Come and see.”
“Shame on you, Kareem,” Mama said. “You want to bring bad luck on us like that?”
Mama’s God was a capricious one. He could turn on you on a dime. You had to be careful.
“No, no, Amira and me just out here praying that God forgive the stupid Libyan’s sins,” Baba said, grinning at me.
Mama snorted and then leaned down to wake Lina. She removed the pillow from over Lina’s face, and the lacy edges of her prayer veil brushed Lina’s cheek. Lina swatted it away like a fly. “Sabah al-khair, ya gamila,” she said.
“Come and eat,” she told us. “It’s almost dawn.”
Bay Ridge was about to fast for a whole month of fifteen-hour days. We would be one dry mouth, one rumbling belly, one pounding head. Mothers would wake at least an hour before dawn to make the suhoor meal, to scramble eggs and basturma in skillets. And when the children and the husbands finally woke up, usually with only a few minutes to spare, the mothers would stuff the mixture into pita halves so their families could eat more quickly, in time to perform wudu and pray with the sun. It was your last chance to eat and drink and smoke and fuck and curse and gossip and think unkind thoughts until the sun set again in the evening.
Baba shuffled after Mama like a bad dog. Lina stood up and yawned, letting out a long moan. Mama made us a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, mashed fava beans, and sliced tomatoes. We sat around the kitchen table, shoveling food sleepily into our mouths, letting bits of egg dribble down our chins. After we’d eaten, Mama stood sentry over us and watched as we each downed three full glasses of water.
“I’m going back to bed,” Lina said after she’d finished.
“Haram, ya binti,” Mama said and grabbed the collar of her Wu-Tang T-shirt.
The sun was creeping up the horizon and we still needed to pray Fajr. Mama dragged the coffee table to the corner of the living room to clear space for the four of us to pray all lined up. Then she brought us a basket of delicate white prayer scarves with edges like doilies. Lina and I each slipped one on, and then Mama pointed to the bathroom. We zombie-shuffled over to it, purposefully knocking into each other as we went.
Lina and I stood side by side in front of the bathroom sink. Silently, we washed ourselves with cold New York City tap water. We were efficient and thorough. In the name of God, state your intent to perform wudu. Wash both hands up to the wrists. Rinse your mouth three times. Clean your nostrils, breathing in water and blowing it out three times. Rinse your face three times. Wash your arms up to the elbows three times. Slick your hair back like an Italian mobster, once. Wash your ears. Wash your feet. Do you feel cleansed? Are you ready?
After we had performed wudu, Mama wanted Baba, our patriarch, to stand in front and lead us in prayers, but he was annoyed about being late to the shop. Baba didn’t like to pray—sometimes, when he was feeling nostalgic about the old days in the old country, he would tell me about the time he was eighteen and he stormed out of his village masjid back in Egypt.
“That stupid imam, he tell me man come from ball of clay and clot of blood, and I tell him, What, are you stupid? Man, he come from monkey, not clay! So I leave and I go home and I tell my mama, Mama, I’m not praying anymore. And ever since that day, I never pray again.”
Except, of course, he did pray again. Countless times. But I think I know what he meant. He meant that he never really felt it again, never again believed that it would help him ace a test or publish the poems he wrote in the margins of his school notebooks. He prayed now like a man following orders, like a man too tired to put up a fight.
The clock on the mantel chimed. It was like a cuckoo clock, except instead of birds it opened to reveal a tiny golden Ka’ba that spun and played a recording of a famous muezzin from Egypt reciting the call to prayer. A robotic voice told us that prayer is better than sleep. There are no minarets in Brooklyn. God’s name does not echo across the buildings. There is nothing but a clock on the wall.
Baba was persuaded to stand in front of us, his womenfolk, and lead prayers. But he rushed through all his rakat, touching his forehead to the carpet for only a moment before standing up again. The rest of us were only halfway through when we heard the door close behind him.
When we had finished, Lina and I squeezed together in her bed. I tried to close my eyes and determine whether I felt any different on the first day of the holy month. The month when, a zillion years ago, the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations up on that mountaintop. He thought he was just a poor illiterate orphan escaping to the mountain to rest his mind. But then the Angel Jibrail came down, and—bam—all of a sudden he was a prophet, the prophet.
For some that summer, the next thirty days would be filled with prayers and reflections and recitations. Bodies and minds would be purified. But for the rest of us, it would be thirty days of waiting for the sun to set so we could eat and drink without incurring the judgment of all the collective mothers and grandmothers and aunties of Bay Ridge, who with one wagging finger and one cluck of the tongue could banish us into a prison of guilt.
The waiting. Every Ramadan, people waited for Lina to change. To be struck with the spirit of Islam, to ditch her cutoffs and halter tops for a nice, modest abaya. To hang out after prayers with the good Muslim girls at the Starbucks on 3rd instead of drinking with the Mexicans in Sunset Park. And every Ramadan, Lina waited for people to go ahead and give up on her.
Baba waited for Mama to mellow, to hang up her abayas, put down her Qur’an, and become once again the quietly irreverent girl he had married.
Mama waited for us, her husband and daughters, to believe as we ought to.
They both waited for Sami, their boy, their firstborn, to come back to them.
I waited for something without a name. A jolt, a tingling, a filling up.
Ordinarily, I didn’t care much about Ramadan. But that summer, with our high-school graduation only days away, it felt momentous. Suddenly the things around me—tables, books, clouds—were imbued with meaning that I was supposed to be able to decipher but couldn’t. In September, I would go to college, and I was sure that by then I would be different. I would push and the world would stumble in response.
Lying next to Lina that first morning, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the woman I was destined to become. I saw a glimmer of my own future arm, thinner, with a figure-eight tattoo curling around my wrist. I smiled to myself, but then I realized that I had stolen this wrist off the girl who served us pizza yesterday after school. It was her tattoo, her skin, her body. I had plagiarized my own imaginings of myself. So, eyes closed, I kept waiting for knowledge to strike me like an arrow in the heart.
These are the normal kinds of waiting that fill the long, dry-mouthed days of Ramadan. But this Ramadan, this particularly long and hot Ramadan, there was another kind of waiting that we all shared. It kept everyone in Bay Ridge strung together on a long, tenuous thread, knocking into one another like prayer beads.
We were waiting for the men with dogs to return.
Outside, Abu Jamal’s café sat abandoned, wrapped in yellow police tape. Across the street, Baba led a calf around the corner, to the alley behind his butcher shop, where he would drag a very sharp knife across the skin of its throat while muttering verses from the Qur’an. Someone from one of the mosques had brought it to him, because there’s no better way to kick off the holy month than with a sacrificial slaughter. He’d have to do it quickly and quietly and be sure to mop up all the blood afterward; otherwise, the Health Department would be back with another citation.
We could hear the calf mewing gently. Lina leaned out the window and called down to Baba. “Baba,” she said, “don’t do it!”
Baba smiled up at her and called back, “Close your eyes, ya Lina, look away.” And as he said it, he moved his own hand over the calf’s eyes so it wouldn’t have to see what was coming next.
It was seven hours into the first day of Ramadan, and we were as hungry as shit. Our girl Reina kept offering us sticks of Juicy Fruit gum because our stomachs were rumbling so loudly.
“Nah, homie,” Lina said, pushing the pack back toward Reina.
“Not even gum?” Reina asked.
“Not even water,” I said.
Lina and I had been friends with Reina since elementary school, but every year she still asked all the same questions. We were chilling on a bench near the playground in Owl’s Head Park. Lina kept shifting around, pulling one leg up to her chest and stretching the other out across the sidewalk, trying on different poses for the boys at the basketball courts, like some kind of mannequin. We were graduating from Fort Hamilton High School in two days, but classes for the seniors had already finished, and everyone was out, clustered around various benches, listening to music on their phones, a cacophony of tinny techno beats and muffled rappers. We were listening to Ol’ Dirty Bastard on Lina’s phone, because she was going through what she called her “OG” phase.
“And I thought Lent was bad,” Reina said.
“Lent is for pussies,” Lina said. “Muslims are hard.”
“Yeah, so hard they be blowing up shit.” Reina made an explosion with her fist.
“At least we don’t go around with cocaine up our assholes—right, Roo?”
Lina looked at me for backup. This was a game we usually loved to play with Reina—sometimes it was a competition over whose people were the most fucked up or sometimes the least fucked up—but, today, I wasn’t paying any attention.
I was thinking about our brother again. Usually, I was pretty good at limiting my thoughts of him to once a month. Once my brain hit that quota, it shut down that lobe for another month, and Sami was again banished. But he was up for another parole hearing, and I kept seeing his face on other people’s bodies as they walked around Bay Ridge. While Reina and Lina argued, I was looking across the street at a mural of schoolchildren holding hands in a circle and imagining his face painted onto all their sweet multicultural cartoon heads. A dozen cartoon Samis holding hands. And earlier that morning, during suhoor, I saw him holding a baseball mitt on the back of a Cheerios box. Sami didn’t even like baseball. Or at least he never used to. I didn’t know what he liked or didn’t like anymore.
Copyright © 2023 by Aisha Abdel Gawad. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.