I looked at the man out of the corner of my eye on the subway. I was coming home from work and something struck me as odd about the man. The man already stood out due to his appearance, but that wasn’t why he was odd to me. They, and by they I mean the Maulanas and Muftis, would say that it takes a lot of faith, or Imaan, to do what that man was doing. To dress the way he was dressed, respecting and adhering to the Sunnah. He was dressed in one of those long white robes, a jubbah, a black cap covering his head and a full beard affixed his face. Many people looked at that man and thought ‘Muslim’. Everyone in the Muslim community would commend him for his strong character and they would silently use him as a paragon of virtue in all sermons that came after. We were all meant to feel shame that we were not also dressing the same.
I was a grown man though. This meant I could feel whatever I want. I was able to feel whatever I wanted because I disobeyed the doctrine of organized Islam and asked questions. One example of this is ‘What does keeping a full beard and adhering to the Sunnah have anything to do with being a good person and achieving salvation? Those things may instill discipline, show a commitment to one’s faith, and a respect for the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH), but they will not be the transgression that bars you from the gates of Jannah. Ever.’
I looked at the man out of the corner of my eye on the streetcar, the fragrance of his itr softly emanating towards me and I thought something subversive. I knew him. The smell took me back to a different time, when we were all younger, and that fragrance pervaded the air and breathy halls of an ancient building only twenty years old. I remembered. I knew that man once, when we were all still boys, trying to figure out what faith really meant and how important it was.
We were teenagers, fifteen or sixteen or something. He was new to Canada, having just arrived from Pakistan that year. He was a few years younger than me, quiet, shy. He was dressed in a bright green and purple wool sweater and it was the middle of May. I think someone had told him that Canada was supposed to be cold. He always had the same glossy brown pants on, the kind you’d find at a disco in the 70’s. He was a funny looking kid by Western standards, and seeing a new kid dressed like that in the hallways at school burned an image in my brain that I carried throughout the rest of the week. I saw the kid again at the mosque on Saturday to my dismay. I was taken aback by seeing him there. There had always been a stark divide between secular and religious in my life. The two had always been separate. When I left school for the day I could expect to not see any of those people again until the next day, or Monday, or September. Seeing him on Saturday reminded me that he was like me, that he wasn’t that much different than I, and we had a lot in common despite how badly I wanted to deny it. Seeing him there on Saturday in his glossy brown pants, I had to admit that he didn’t’ look that out of place anymore. His outfit fit in a place that didn’t value fashion. I specifically remember hearing that evening that God favors the austere and Spartan person. Whether that was through poverty or a concern for the otherworldly didn’t matter. That kid was austere as shit, through no choice of his own. Later that evening a Maulana approached my father and I after the sermon was over and we were preparing to leave. My face fell. He had the new kid in tow with another man who could only be the kid’s father.
The Maulana gave a warm Salaam to my father and I. We sat and I began to wonder why my father looked unbothered. The Maulana gestured to me and spoke in Urdu. I could only hope that the man hadn’t heard anything troubling about me from my teachers in class. From what I could gather, it appeared that the new boy was having trouble adjusting in school. His English wasn’t great and he needed help acclimating to his new life here. All shit that I could’ve told them when I saw him in that outfit on the first day. I could tell where the conversation was headed and I grew uncomfortable. The last thing I needed was a kid who didn’t know English tailing me at school. It just wasn’t a good look.
But good looks didn’t matter to some people. I was young, and when you’re young, you’re an asshole sometimes. I wanted to be left alone by that kid and anyone else who didn’t know English. Even though I was born here, I was still desperate to prove it. I didn’t feel like my identity and citizenship were infallible. The way it was ingrained and a part of those rich white kids. I felt Canadian, but that feeling didn’t feel impervious. I didn’t want anyone mistaking me for someone who didn’t know English. This was my mortal fear. That someone would look at me and surmise that I was fresh off the boat. That fear made me a dick.
I needed everyone to know I knew English when they looked at me. So I was an asshole to that kid.
My father of course volunteered my company at school to help the kid adjust, much to my chagrin. Both my father and the Maulana were oblivious to my teenage discomfort and haughty protest, my crossed arms invisible to them. You may read this and believe that they just simply didn’t care, but the honest truth was that they were blind to my silent protests. They didn’t see or understand or care for a healthy social life. The other kid saw it all though, and I’m sure he knew, in that silent unspoken language we shared. All of us, the sons of religious immigrants, whenever we wanted to convey anything contrary to what was being displayed, could do it with a look, a nod, a glare. When words are profane, we have languages born in darkness, told through a touch, a glance, a breath of hot air. His hurt eyes recognized my silent protest in the Mosque that night.
The next week at school, the kid made a feeble half-hearted attempt to sit at my lunch table in the afternoon. As an asshole, I felt no empathy for him, only pity and awkwardness. He ate his lunch in silence, the smell of Daal and garlic making me brush the air in front of my nose and wrinkle it in disgust. I scarfed my hot dogs so I could continue playing Magic. He could feel his own unwanted presence in the crashing, rocking lunch room and he stood up to leave early. I would see him around in school afterwards, but never again around me. Even if he had stuck around we had nothing in common. There was nothing for him to do around me. At that age, people form friendships because of shared interest. He had been in the country a month, and the way we saw our religion and faith was completely different. His faith was a part of him, it directly dictated his identity. He loved cricket, and action movies where they cracked chicken bones to simulate kicks and punches.
I liked girls with big asses, Magic, Pokemon, comic books and hockey. What was I supposed to talk to this kid about? Still, I feel bad, horrible, guilty. That’s why I’m writing this all down. So you know what happened to him, and because I feel partly responsible. You decide.
About a few weeks before school let out for the summer, I was called into the principal’s office. I wasn’t worried though, I’d done nothing wrong, trouble wasn’t really my thing. I was surprised though to see the new kid sitting there, looking scared. Adeel, that was his name. I remember it now. Adeel was sitting there, looking scared, his eyes were wide, and he gulped, bobbing his Adam’s apple as I walked in. The principal, a frazzled woman with curly black hair sticking out all over the place motioned for me to sit beside him, facing her across the long dark, deep plum desk.
“Do you know him? Adeel. He’s new.” The principal, Mrs. Braithwaite asked, her fingertips on her chin, pointed like a gun while she waited for my response.
“Yeah,” I choked out, still unsure if what I was saying could get me into trouble. Mrs. Braithwaite studied me for a minute, obviously trying to discern if I was lying, her suspicion clear in her blue eyes. I knew what she was going and yet still her look scared me. No kid in middle school wants to be in a principal’s office. At that age, it’s seldom for anything good.
“Adeel was in an incident in gym class last week. I understand that you share a gym class with him and Megan?”
“Yes, that’s right.” I admitted, unsure of why I felt guilty. And what did Megan have anything to do with this?
“Well someone’s accused him of something. Something very serious.”
I didn’t understand. The kid was way too quiet. He didn’t even have any friends. What could he have possibly gotten up to?
“He says that you may be able to clear his name.” Mrs. Braithwaite paused again, letting the brevity of the situation sink into the cold, carpeted room. I was nonplussed, still unsure of how I fit into this whole thing. Last week’s gym class, as far as I could recall was uneventful. Just another day, we played basketball if I remembered correctly.
“We played basketball.” I offered quietly, shrugging my shoulders. I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Adeel has been accused of a sexual assault,” She said clearly, her voice dripping with cold steel.
No, it couldn’t be me, I remember thinking immediately. He was an immigrant. And even though I was born here, I felt the same. We were way too scared and intimidated to even talk to any girl. They were too different from us. I ventured a look towards Adeel, he had his head down, staring at the grey pukey carpet so I couldn’t read his face.
“Do you remember seeing anything strange last Thursday? After gym class I mean? Mr. Rogelio says you were one of the last ones to leave? You were collecting balls after class for talking out of turn?”
It came back to me. I’d made a stupid comment out loud about the Appalachian mountains being in Appalachia and Mr. Rogelio told me to collect the rest of the balls strewn throughout the room as punishment. I was throwing them long distance into the storage closet as the class filed off into the changing rooms. I remember seeing Megan limp a little. It looked like she was trying to hide the awkward gait while she talked with her friend. Megan wasn’t really the gym type anyways. Her and a few friends usually just sat on the bench and watched, taking a zero for the day from the gym teacher. That day was much of the same for them.
I was in the change room alone afterwards and I remember rushing so I could catch up to my friends at the lockers. On my way out, I remember seeing Adeel, walking in the opposite direction. He smiled weakly at me and I pretended not to see it. I was pathetic, but so was his situation. He’d become famous in school. Every day after school his father met him at the entrance and they took the subway home together. He was fourteen years old, taking the subway home with his father. And that man gave no indication that he was on his way home from work either. He came in sweatpants and an oversized plaid shirt, sandals and a toupee adorned on his head. You could set your watch to his appearances at the front doors after school every day. Poor kid never stood a chance.
I looked at the principal. “I’m sorry...I don’t think I saw anything weird.”
“Are you sure? Think harder.” The principal repeated, her brows furrowed now, creases appearing on creases on her forehead. I was starting to feel accused.
Was Megan’s limp even a big deal? Did it matter that she was already limping before gym class was even over? Was it worth mentioning? Did it even matter that I saw Adeel walking down the hall after gym class that day? I didn’t want to indict anybody. I didn’t want to accuse someone of anything or create a problem where there wasn’t one. My deference for a white girl commanded me to stay silent.
“No I don’t think there was anything.” I said.
“You were the last one out of the changing room that day. Did you see either Megan or Adeel?”
It was like she knew something, or felt something was off. She was still fishing and I could tell now that Adeel had told her that he’d seen me in the hallway after school that day. As a little bitch, I wanted no part of it. A scared boy who just wanted to be left alone. Rape accusations were the type of things that followed immigrants around. White kids weren’t being pulled into offices to vouch for other white kids accused of assault in my mind.
I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted the questioning to end. I wanted to go back to class. I didn’t want to be involved in this weird problem that wasn’t mine and never could be.
“No, I didn’t see anything.” I couldn’t look Adeel in the eye. I told myself at the time that that was because I was too focused on the principal.
“Okay, That will be all. Thanks for your help Ahmad.”
She stood up and led me to the door. I hurried and didn’t bother looking back to where Adeel was still sitting. Stuck in his chair. I didn’t want the image of him alone in that cold room burned into my brain. But I felt it all the same, when the door closed behind me with a soft click. I knew he was in there, cold, confused, in a flurry of grey law. All for the sake of persevering my stupid teenage identity, I’d failed a boy in his hour of need. So I could go on, pretending I was the same as everyone else.
I remember what happened to him. I remember my stomach churning when I saw him next. He was suspended for two weeks. Word around the school was they couldn’t expel him because there was no concrete evidence for his crime. He’d got off lightly because of Megan’s reputation, and his lack of one. We all knew it might’ve been bullshit but none of us ever spoke up or said anything. We were all too meek and afraid in that lunchroom cacophony of a cafeteria where a ragtag group of Bengalis and Tamils sat amidst a sea of loud voices. The school kept it all hush-hush, and likely only suspended him to appease the girl’s parents. Megan never looked him in the eye ever again, and when Adeel came back, he was a changed man. Laughing angels spread their wings before him to tread on. His quiet demeanor became an austere one, the eyes of the afterlife quietly judging everything around him in the classroom.
When I took the subway to school a few weeks later, my heart sank even further in calamity. Adeel and his father were taking the subway together. And once again, I shook my head in awe at the fear and reprehension it took to go so far. But what really brought it home to me, what really made me uncomfortable, was that they were holding hands. A fourteen year old holding his father’s hand, looking nonplussed. Should a false rape accusation really affect someone that bad? I don’t know. I know that Adeel’s father walked him to school after and promptly turned back around at the gate and went back home, his Imaan enough to guard him from Fitna on his commute back home.
After I graduated I never saw him again, until that day on the streetcar a few weeks back, the musk of itr permeating throughout the car. It is said that angels keep their company around that smell. They find themselves around a blessed, holy man, and create a gathering of light around him. A man so sure of himself, and steadfast in his convictions, his faith lays waste to his doubts.
His doubts never even got a chance.
after watching his fifth re-run of iCarly. He is a graduate of the
University of Toronto, having studied English, and has largely remained
unpublished until now.
Photo credit: Jason Liang