That first day we spoke over coffee after Friday prayers, you confessed you had never held a turbah before. I carried it with me in a small velvet bag which also contained my prayer beads. My mother had given me these things before I left for college, I explained, handing the stone to you across the table with only the slightest hesitation. I wasn’t sure if you registered that flash of reluctance, and if you did, whether you attributed it to my shyness with a boy, or my mistrust of a Sunni. Even if you had asked about it, I couldn’t have told you which it was anyway.
I watched your face as you turned the turbah around in your hand, tracing the engraving with your thumb. I wondered if you would begin to interrogate me. This had been my limited experience so far with any non-Shias. You only smiled and said it was beautiful, like a work of art. I still remember the way the smile reached your eyes, and the way my heart believed you meant it.
It was no coincidence you mentioned art that day. This was something we shared, as we’d first met the week before in Art History class. I don’t think you knew I was Muslim then, I hadn’t known you were. It made me happy to discover this. I found it strange that I was shy with you when had never been shy before. I grew up in a small town where my brother and I were the only Muslims in school, and I had plenty of friends, both girls and boys.
At your suggestion, we rode the bus together to the museum for our first assignment. We sat side-by-side, your head leaned back listening to music, my head leaned forward reading a novel. Not touching, yet I could feel the way your body expanded and contracted with each breath. By the end of the drive, my breathing matched yours.
Inside the museum, we wandered through galleries, pointing out what caught our eyes. We studied the intricate stone Buddhas, the color of their mud matching my earthen turbah. I worried this would be your moment to educate me about “idolatry,” that you would reveal some secret prejudice. Instead you said you wondered how Buddhists felt about their sacred works in this secular place, if they were upset to see their belief reduced to their aesthetics. Like women, I said. And you raised your eyebrows. Women are always being reduced to their aesthetics, and judged by it, I pointed out. You smiled, biting your lip, and said, lucky you for being so pretty then.
God help me, I think we both blushed, we were so innocent. It was not the first time I’d been called pretty, but it was the first time I wanted a boy to think so. It felt like a weakness to want this, and I did not mind it. Maybe because I believed it was not all you saw in me.
When we left the museum, we made plans to come back for the upcoming showcase of night sky photographs from around the world. It felt very grown-up, out with a boy I liked, making plans to see a museum exhibit unprompted by a class.
I woke the next morning to find an email had gone out to the entire Muslim student association, banning turbahs during prayer, so as not to divide the congregation. Reading it, I felt a vise on my heart like someone I had only just begun to trust had reached a violent hand inside my chest. I was not the only Shia on campus, but I was one of a small few. I called you to tell you how I felt about this. You listened and said you didn’t like to hear I’d been made to feel bad.
I didn’t see you again until Friday prayers—homework for these college courses was getting the best of both of us. I’d gotten used to looking forward to seeing you at Jummah, and the way we talked for hours at the cafe afterward. What I remember now about those days: how you rested your chin in your hand while you listened to me, your fingers rubbing your lips. The patches of hair you missed when shaving, and the creases in your shirt which hadn’t been fully ironed. The way your lanky body unfolded itself when you got out of a chair. We only met in public so these details passed for intimacy. You were comfortably familiar and excitingly unknowable.
This day, you’d invited some of your friends to come out for coffee with us. I didn’t mind, meeting your other Muslim friends. These three guys and two girls had known you since high school, though, and it was quickly clear I was the odd one out. One of the girls was beautiful, and I hated myself for feeling the pinch of insecurity sitting next to her. She laughed too quickly at your jokes, and I couldn’t help but notice this, too.
That weekend I got a text from you asking if I wanted to go out to the movies with the group. It was last minute, and I’d made other plans. Despite this, I considered canceling to go with you. But I didn’t. I felt excluded even though you were trying to include me. Later, I saw pictures of your day online, and I fell down the dark rabbit hole of looking at photos of that girl. Her pictures were artful, ever conscious of the aesthetics, even when they were just of her hand in her car holding her morning cup of coffee—the gold of her bracelets gleaming, her slim fingers adorned with rings, the emblem of her luxury car visible on her steering wheel.
She made being worthy look like a matter of acquiring the right things. And there was something appealing about working hard to look good, because it was something to do to avoid the real work. Like you could busy yourself with those adornments to push back the ugly feelings. And we were all so easily seduced by beauty. What were we doing in those galleries if not looking for beauty?
When you and I spoke next, you asked if I was upset about something. I was tired/confused/lonely, and told you I was just feeling down. You said that you didn’t like to hear that I was sad. And I asked you: what upset you the most, that I was sad, or that you had to hear about it? It wasn’t a fair fight, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t deserve it.
You came over, uninvited, and sat beside me on my dorm room floor. In between breaths where I kept my sobs in, I said, in Pakistan, where my cousins live, where my aunts, my uncles, my Nani and Nana live, Shias are being murdered. Accused of being non-Muslim. Unbelievers. Apostates. Those that try to protect them are being killed. I have to speak up, I said. I have to say something at least here, on this small matter, where I can.
You sat listening, saying nothing, just sitting on the ground beside me nodding your head in agreement, not calling me crazy or emotional or melodramatic. And I loved you for it.
We went to the night sky exhibit and marveled at the beauty of this world. Thousands of stars seen in places where there was no ambient light. God’s complex universe was kept hidden beyond the man-made glare, there for anyone who left behind the worldly chaos and sought it in the deserts and fields, the mountains and forests. It was all around us, right this moment, even as we gazed at representations and approximations of it on the museum walls.
That night, I kneeled on my prayer rug, the cool stone beneath my forehead, the last words on my lips, subhanallah, subhanallah, subhanallah.
Zareen Jaffery is a writer and editor who lives in New York City.