by Ed Neil
This story is set in a similar setting to Emily W’s amazing tale Chelsea: Then and Now, and provided the inspiration for the ending. It is not necessary to have read one story to understand the other but if you haven’t read Emily W, check her tales, they are incredible.
— You can’t be serious, whispered Mina.
— You’re really doing it ? asked Djamila, equally shocked and excited.
— Yeah ! said Maryam. He agreed, he comes tonight while my parents are away, it’s going to be…
— Miss Nadjaf, would it be too much to ask for your attention ? interrupted the teacher with exasperation.
Maryam sighed. She turned away from Mina to look at the board and mister Sattouf, her arabic litteracy teacher.
— Could you repeat what I just said ?
The whole class looked at her. Of course she couldn’t repeat, she stopped paying attention to what he was saying half an hour ago.
— I thought so, said the teacher, sardonic. Might I suggest that you focus less on your friend and more on what is actually being said in this room. Your grades are already as bad as they are now, I don’t think it is necessary to make it worse.
Maryam kept silent, she had nothing to respond. She didn’t talk for the rest of the hour, instead admiring Rashid from her position. The handsome young man was occupying her thoughts since they met at the beginning at the semester, when they joined the Cairo University. It wasn’t long before they began flirting. Maryam was an gorgeous twenty-two years old woman and she knew it. She immediatly caught the attention of Rashid. They didn’t spend much time together as they often stayed with their respective friends but tonight, they were going to get much closer.
Finally, the class was over. The students packed their stuff and left the auditorium. Maryam caught up with Rashid.
— Tonight, come at my house after eight, we’ll be alone.
The young man smiled at the perspective of the night they were going to have. Maryam immediatly returned to Mina and Djamila.
— At your parents’ house ? That’s crazy, the latter saids, scandalized and amused at the same time.
— It’s also my house, Maryam pointed out. And my parents will be at some friend’s house in Port Said for the week-end.
— How lucky you are, my parents are always at home and never let me invite anyone, Mina sighed.
As it was almost time for lunch, the three women went to the cafeteria. There wasn’t a lot of people as most students were still in class. While Maryam was happy to share a good meal with her friends, her enthousiasm diminished when she saw a girl entirely covered in black waiting at the doors of the cafeteria, holding a bunch of prospectus.
— Salam, said the black ghost with a neutral voice. We are proposing courses to raise awareness to islam amongst the students. There will be sheiks and scholars from Saudi Arabia to teach us about the way of the salafs.
— Thanks, but we’re not interested, said Mina, uneasy.
— You should be, islam is the only way to Jannah. Allah will not grant access to people who don’t follow His commands, insisted the girl, her voice calm but filled with conviction. It is never too late to come back the Path and save your souls from the fires of Jahannam.
Maryam, Mina and Djamila each took a prospectus to end the discussion. Black ghosts and long bearded men were occasionaly seen on the campus but Maryam had never interracted with one of them before. They intimitated her with their clothes and their beliefs. She couldn’t see her eyes as they were hidden beneath a black material but Maryam knew she was seen by this salafi girl as the embodiment of corruption and depravity, wearing tight clothings and a hijab that showed more hairs than it covered, just like her friends.
After selecting their meals, Maryam, Mina and Djamila sat at a table and began eating.
— Seriously, who does she think she is ? Maryam complained. She sounded like she wanted to spit in our faces.
— Good thing she was wearing that niqab, Djamila joked.
— I don’t think she meant any harm, she just cares for our souls, Mina guessed.
— Don’t tell me you’ll be going to thoses classes ? Maryam asked, astonished by the words of her friend.
— No, of course not ! I’m just saying that I don’t think she is a bad person. She should just be more polite.
— Maybe, but I still don’t like them, I mean who dresses like that ? Maryam wondered.
— Someone who must be very cold, Djamila responded, making the other girls laugh.
— Maryam, we’re on our way !
— Okay dad !
— Could you at least come and tell us goodbye ? her mother asked.
The young woman left her room to see her parents. Like the rest of the house, it reflected the wealth of their family. Samir Nadjaf was a successfull businessman in his fifties. Like his wife, Hiba, he was somewhat conservative. While he was working, she stayed at home and dressed modestly. Her hijab was strictly tied up, none of her hair was visible, and wore a blue abaya. They sometimes complained about the lack of modesty of their daughter but never forced her to do anything. Maryam kissed her parents goodbye.
— We’ll back soon, said her father.
— You may invite friends if you want, but no boys, warned her mother.
— I know mum.
— Good. There is food in the refrigerator. Since I supposed you don’t feel very encline on cooking, you’ll just have to micro-wave it.
Another complaint from her parents. Maryam didn’t care at all for domestic duties and her mother had to ask her twice before she would clean her room. Once they were gone, she went to her room and watched them get in the car by the window. As soon as they were far enough, she called Rashid, asking with excitment how far he was. Luckily, he left his house earlier than she hoped and was almost there.
Maryam went to the living room, closed the curtains, lit up some candles and put on music on her laptop. She took a pill in advance for what would be coming later this evening. She tried to relax by sending messages to Mina and Djamila, giving Maryam a feeling of pride, being the first of her group of friends to have such an experience.
Eventually, the bell rang. Maryam ran to open the door. Rashid was there, a bottle of wine in his hand. He was so beautiful, and tonight he would be hers. She invited him to come in and quickly close the door before someone saw them together. As soon as she turned back, he took her head in his hands and kissed her with passion. Surprised at first, Maryam soon returned the kiss. Her first one. She wished the moment never stopped. Eventually, Rashid pulled back his lips from hers and looked at her. She wouldn’t have called it love, it felt more like lust. After all, it was just a one night relationship. Still, Maryam had hoped Rashid would try to pretend it was a magic night. Obviously, he had more experience than her in this kind of things, it sure wasn’t the same for him.
— Do you have something to eat ? he asked. I’m starving.
— Yeah, there’s enough for us in the fridge.
She went to the kitchen and put the food in the micro-wave. She went back with two plates and two glasses, which Rashid filled with red wine. Maryam had already drank alcohol, but it was years ago. She didn’t particulary liked it but she didn’t want to look like a downer. As the liquid descended her throat, she forced herself to smile to Rashid who was clearly enjoying it and filled his glass two more times.
They talk a little while eating on the couch, about college, the teachers, their friends, their parents. Rashid’s family didn’t seem as conservative as Maryam’s but apparently they didn’t approve of the behaviour of their son.
— Did you tell your parents you were coming here ? asked Maryam.
— Why would I ? It’s not their business. As soon as I can, I leave them and I do whatever I want.
He emptied his glass after saying that and began kissing Maryam again all over her neck. It was overwhelming. She never felt such excitation. She remained focused enough to stand up and lead him to her room. There, they continued to kiss and explore each other’s bodies. While he palpated her breast, she wont for his manly part. Her heart never beat so fast. She knew what it was, how it was suppose to feel, but to experience it for herself was completely different.
She couldn’t tell for how long it lasted. They eventually stopped, catching their breath. Rashid left the bed to go to the toilet. Maryam didn’t mind the break. She use the occasion to began to disrobe. Lying on her bed naked, she grabbed her phone and send a message to Mina and Djamila : « I’m doing it ! For real ! ».
When Rashid came back, he seemed surprised by the naked Maryam but appeared to find that pleasing to his eyes.
— You don’t want to waste time, he noticed as he took off his shirt.
Soon, he was naked and on top of Maryam. That was it. The big moment. She was so absorbed she didn’t hear footsteps coming up the stairs toward her bedroom. As Rashid was pulling the sheets on them, the door opened violently, taking the young people by surprise. Maryam covered her mouth with both hands as she saw her father.
His face was red with anger, even though he tried to contain it. Calmly but firmly, he grapped Rashid by the arm and pulled him out of the bed. He then took his clothes lying on the floor and threw them at him. Without saying a word, her father pushed Rashid out of the room and then out of the house. Maryam wanted to protest but her mother appeared just after Rashid left the room. Unlike her husband, she didn’t look angry, but rather sad and disappointed. She looked at Maryam in the eyes, who looked away, ashamed, covering her bosom with the sheets. Her mother closed the door and left her daughter alone.
Maryam put back her clothes as tears came to her eyes. She sat on her bed, unsure of what to do. Should she go and apologize directly to her parents or wait that they tell her what to do ? Why did they came back ? Now they would never trust her. She lied to them. More than being found naked, it was the most painful thought.
Eventually, she lied and fell asleep, exhausted.
A push on her shoulder wake Maryam up. Her mother was standing, wearing her hijab and abaya like she was ready to go out.
— Get up, breakfast is ready.
Maryam did as she told. It was seven in the morning and she was hungry. As she walked down the stairs, her mother stayed in her bedroom, putting clothes in a luggage. Maryam was worry of what was going to happen next. Were they going to throw her out of the house ? The idea began to take a hold of herself. In the kitchen, she forced herself to eat the plate her mother had prepared. There was no sign of her father.
When she was done, she stayed sat, waiting. Her mother finally came down the stairs with Maryam’s luggage and a hijab she gave her daughter, who put it on as she was used to.
— Your hair is still visible, commented her mother.
She tied her daughter’s hijab herself so that nothing of her black hair was visible. Maryam felt like a child, having to be dressed up by her mother. The two women sat in the kitchen, until the father came.
— Let’s go, he said.
The three of them went in the car, Maryam in the back, her parents in the front. She didn’t understand what was going on, where could they be going ? As they left Cairo, she could no longer stay silent.
— Mummy, daddy, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done what I did and I shouldn’t have lied. It was bad, I know. I have no excuse but it will never happen again.
She wanted to make another promise but she remember she broke the last one she made. She began to cry. Her parents sometimes annoyed her but she didn’t want to lose their love. They didn’t say a word. Her only thing her father did was giving her a stare through the rearview.
The trip lasted four hours. By the road signs, Maryam understood they were going to Alexandria. They didn’t went to the downtown area but rather for the suburbs of the metropolis. Maryam’s heart beat increased by the sight of the streets. There was almost no woman in the street. The few she saw were covered in black and following men, presumably their husband or father.
The car reached some sort of campus surrounded by three meters walls. Maryam was paralysed by terror. There were only women, all of them hiding their faces, hands and, for many, even their eyes. After her father parked the car, he took her luggage while her mother opened the door and told Maryam to get out. She looked at her mother, silently begging for her to explain what was happening. No answer came. With shacking hands, she detached her safety belt and got out of the car. The three of them waited in silence, as a man in his fifties came to them, a woman entirely dressed in black at his sides.
— Samir Nadjaf I presume, said the man. I’m Omar Awad, please follow me.
The group walked toward the main building of the compound, the men leading the way while the women followed. Maryam was surrounded by her mother on the left and the woman in black on her right. She felt like a prisonner escorted to jail. Eventually, they arrived at Omar’s office. While the men entered, the woman in black told Maryam and her mother to keep walking. They arrived at some sort of waiting room where they sat down. There were Qurans, religious books and brochures of the campus at the disposal of the guests.
— I am Umm Najeedah, said the woman in black. I am the wife of Omar Awad. I am also in charge of the woman section of this campus. Do you know why you are Maryam ?
Her voice was calm, gentle even, but the young woman remained terrified by Umm Najeedah. Her face was just dark plain cloth, she couldn’t even discerned her eyes.
— Because I disobeyed my parents, Maryam answered shyly.
— Indeed, but it was more than that. By disobeying them, you sinned. You drank alcohol and were going to have unlawful relations with a man. These are all affronts to Allah.
The words were calm but said with such conviction that Maryam casted down her eyes. Umm Najeedah was convinced of her moral superiority, somehow making the black figure more imposing.
— But surely, Allah loves you. Otherwise, why would he have cancelled your parent’s flight ? By making them aware of yours sins, He put you on the path to salvation. At your parents request, from now on and as long as necessary, you will live on this campus. You will be taught what being a muslim woman means.
Maryam looked at her mother, shocked by the news. It couldn’t be possible. And yet it was. Maryam wanted to protest but no word came out of her mouth. Her mind was too overwhelmed to think clearly. She didn’t know how much time passed but eventually Omar and her father came to the room. He avoid looking directly at his daughter and simply said to his wife :
— We can go.
As her mother stood up, Maryam grabbed her hand. For the first time since they arrived to this place, they looked in each other eyes. Her mother seemed to hesitate and for a moment Maryam hoped she would escape her punishment. Her hopes faded as her mother’s hand slipped away. Her parents left the room with Omar Awad, leaving Maryam alone with Umm Najeedah. Tears came to her eyes as the door closed.
— Come with me my child, Umm Najeedah said with a compassionate voice. I’ll show you your room.
Her gloved hand took Maryam’s and helped her stand up. The black ghost lead her through the hallways. They came across other women in black. Maryam didn’t dare to look at them.
— You are not the first girl send here by their parents, commented Umm Najeedah. Half of our students are here for the same reason as you.
— And the other half ? Maryam asked.
— They are foreign converts who came to become more familiar with the way of the salafs. Praise be to Allah, they grew up in kufar countries and now they are pious muslim women.
The thought of western women willingly coming here made no sense to Maryam. Why abandon their freedoms to subjugate themselves to the will of backward thinking men ?
Umm Najeedah opened the door of Maryam’s room. It was small but had the necessary : a bed, a desk, a bathroom and a closet. In a corner lied a prayer rug and a Quran on a X shaped stand.
— You will find clothes in the closet. Outside of your room, you will have to cover everything, including face and hands. You don’t have to cover your eyes, though it is preferable. All prayers will be accomplished in common as well as the meals, I will show you the rooms. You will take part in the cleaning, laundry and cooking of the campus. You will find a planning for those chores as well as your courses in your desk. Prayers, chores and courses are all mandatory. Do you understand ?
— Good. Change your clothes then I will show you the rest of the campus.
Umm Najeedah closed the door, leaving Maryam some privacy. She remained standing for a moment, numb. Part of her wanted to collapse, to cry, never to rise again. Another made her comply with the instructions. Umm Najeedah was still intimidating but she had been kind in her behaviour. Maybe there was some hope that her stay wouldn’t last too long if she obeyed.
Maraym took the pile of black clothes in the closet and put them on the bed. She then disrobe completely, keeping only her underwears. Black stocking reaching her knees and baggy pants hid her legs completely. A long sleeves blouse did the same for her torso. The abaya came next. The sleeves were very loose, giving Maryam the impression to have a pair of wings. She never liked this type of clothes. She loved to show how good looking her body was. She then tied up a black hijab around her head, like her mother did, leaving no hair visible. The khimar given to her fell down to her knees, making her body even more shapeless. Among the final items were the gloves. Maryam never understood how the hands could be considered so attractive they needed to hidden from the rest of the world. Who were those people to tell her what to do with her body ?
She sighed. She knew who they were. They were the ones who would control her life for the foreseeable future. Maryam finally took the niqab and tied it up. There were three layers but apparently, she didn’t had to cover her eyes, a small relief for her. At least there was something that allow people to differenciate her from the rest of the women in this place. Something to keep her individuality.
When she stepped out of the room, Umm Najeedah nodded in approbation.
— Hamdoulillha, you are magnificent my child. This may mean nothing to you, but the dress of a muslim woman reveals her piety. With Allah’s help, your deen will improve fast. Follow me.
Umm Najeedah showed her the prayer room, empty at this time of day, the cafeteria, the kitchens, the library and the gardens. As the visit came to an end, it was almost time for prayers. Lines of black ghosts formed and walked in unison to the room where they washed they hands and face before lining up. Maryam followed the movement, trying to remember as best as she could how the prayers were performed. In her heart, she prayed that if Allah existed, He would free her from this place.
Maryam’s alarm clock woke her up suddenly. She sighed. It wouldn’t be another hour before the Fajr prayers, yet she had to get up. This morning, she was assigned to the preparation of breakfast, it would need to be ready for the students after the prayers. She took a quick shower and put on her uniform. This was the end of her first week in the foundation and she had gradually became accustomed with the pace of the days. Everyday felt like the previous one : prayers, meals, chores, study, sleep, repeat.
In the dark hallways, several other black ghosts like her moved towards the kitchens. When they arrived, they removed their gloves, put an apron and those who covered their eyes lifted their veils. They all began their work under the surveillance of a teacher, who commented their work and notified them when they were doing it wrong. Maryam got a lot of those comments. Even though she improved, her skills were lacking compared to those of the other students. She had done it several times already, but the experience was still strange. Preparing food with her face covered didn’t made sense to her. But nothing made sense here. She didn’t leave her country yet felt like she was in another land.
Eventually, the call to prayer covered the noise of the kitchen and the young women stopped their task at hand and change their clothes. Under the watchful veiled eyes of the teacher, they walked towards the prayer room and performed the gestures. It was almost mechanical. There was no conviction from her part.
When it was over, she returned to the kitchens where she cooked for another hour. After that, she was allowed to eat in silence with the other students assigned to the same chore. Maryam didn’t connect with any of the others students. Though it wasn’t forbiden, the teachers didn’t encourage it. They insisted on the necessity to find Allah through one’s personnal journey. It was the first objective of the Foundation, the courses were merely there to help the students to reach the truth. Those were the words spoken during the first course to which Maryam attented.
After washing the dishes, she headed for one of the class, preparing herself for hours of reading and speeches about the Quran. In one week, she heard more about religion than in all of her life.
Although it appeared she could move as she wished within the campus, she had been instructed that it was forbidden to leave the area where she lived and studied. The other buildings were for little and teenage girls, who attented the courses of the foundation instead of more secular schools, and female foreign students, who willingly came to this place and didn’t have to be reminded of their past lives by staying alongside sinful girls. Had Maryam tried to cross the limits, she would have immediatly been arrested by the guards. In addition, her phone had been confiscated when she arrived and no contact was allowed with the outside. The windows just needed to be barred for this place to be a real prison.
When she arrived to the classroom, she sat on her desk, along fifty other girls. They all kept silent until Bahar Nouri, the teacher, began her lecture.
— Salam. We will resume our study of the Quran, beginning with the fourth sura, The Women. For the next hour, we will read in silence. After that, we will comment on it.
All girls lowered their head and opened the holy book in front of them. Maryam read but the words fled her mind the following moment. She couldn’t focus. She looked at the other students. They all seemed to be absorbed by the sura. Were they pretending or really intrigued by what was written ? She couldn’t say for sure. Her eyes moved towards the window which gave on the hallway. There, she saw a black ghost in company of a white woman. She was wearing western clothes and didn’t cover her hair. Their eyes locked for a brief moment than seemed to last a eternity for Maryam. She couldn’t be one of those foreign students, they were already brainwashed, or « saved » as Umm Najeedah would say, when they were coming here. The black ghost and the western woman continued their walk. This sight filled Maryam with sadness. This woman was free to dress as she wanted, a basic freedom Maryam couldn’t even enjoy. A tear fell from her eye, moisturing the paper of the Quran.
A month had pass since her arrival. The day was going as usual for Maryam. Today, she was in charge of cleaning the floor of the classrooms in the company of another student. This would occupy the bigger part of their afternoon. When they were done, they were allowed to relax until the Asr prayers. Tired of reading religious books, she went outside. Normally, it was too hot for her to even think adventuring outside the air conditionning of the building but she needed to go out. Besides, today was cooler than usual. She sat on a bench under a palm tree, near a flowers alley. Under her niqab she smiled. This place had at least some beauty. A light breeze shook slightly the flowers. This made Maryam realized that it had been so long since she didn’t felt the wind on her face.
— May I sit with you ? asked a voice on her right.
Maryam turned and saw a black ghost, dressed like except she also veiled her eyes. By her voice, she identified the stranger as Umm Najeedah. Surprised to be in the company of the head of the female portion of the campus, she simply nodded.
— Thank you. We didn’t have the chance to talk since you arrived. How are you doing Maryam ?
— I… I’m fine, she said without much conviction.
— Don’t lie Maryam, Umm Najeedah replied with a firm but friendly voice. I have watched you since you arrived. Even if it would be better if you covered your eyes, they tell me that you are not happy.
— No kidding, Maryam sighed. What tipped you off ?
— Be more respectful young lady, said Umm Najeedah with a severe voice. Despite what you may think, you are not here to suffer. Your parents don’t want that, neither do I.
— Doesn’t seems like it, responded Maryam, sobbing at the thought of her parents, of her previous life.
Why couldn’t things go back the way they were ? She wanted to be in her house, to see Djamila and Mina, to dress as she liked. Simple freedoms she was denied. She looked at the black fabric encompassing her body. She wasn’t a person anymore, she was a thing to ignore, obeying without question. This couldn’t be her life. She didn’t want this to be her life. The pain became too much for her to support.
— I hate those things, Maryam said before she began to cry.
She tried to control herself but she couldn’t. As she collapsed, Umm Najeedah took her in her arms and pat her on her head. Even with all the fabric between their skins, the human contact gave Maryam comfort.
— Your struggle is hard my child, I know what it is. I don’t know when you will overcome it. But I know one thing for sure, you are here by the will of Allah.
— Please stop, begged Maryam. He has nothing to do with this. I’m here because of overbooking or because a pilot had an injury. Without that, my parents wouldn’t have missed their flight and come back.
— An unlikely chain of events, yet it happened. You can choose to believe it was meaningless and convince yourself that everything occured for no reasons.
— Or what ?
— Or you can open your heart. You were given an opportunity, don’t fight it, embrace it, walk the path Allah made for you and you will find peace, Umm Najeedah said with a calming voice as she caressed Maryam’s head.
The tone and gestures appeased Maryam. Although she still hated the foundation, she felt some sort of affection towards Umm Najeedah. She knew how to make people feel better. Maryam regain control of herself and look at the woman in charge of her. Nothing could be seen, she couldn’t tell how old she was, but given the age of her husband, she probably was in her fifties.
— For how long have you been… helping others girls ?
Help wasn’t probably the good word, yet it was the one her mind chose.
— For a long time Maryam. Believe me when I say that I know how things must be difficult for you. The foundation was created to help people like you.
— But I don’t need help, Maryam said with less conviction she would have thought.
Gently, Umm Najeedah raised her hands and took Maryam’s cheeks in them. The contact made her feel well. It was reassuring, a simple gesture which made the black ghost closer to a human being.
— This is why you are here, to learn why you need help. Once you understand, you will feel much better, I promise you.
She then stood up and took Maryam’s hand.
— Come, it is almost time for the Asr prayers.
Guided like a child, Maryam went back inside. For the first time, the routine gave her a feeling of tranquillity.
A week passed before Maryam talked to Umm Najeedah again. This time, it was Maryam who approached her. She came to her after the Maghrib prayers. She always made herself at the disposal of the students so they could talk.
— Umm Najeeda, have you always been a salafi ?
— No. I came from a devout muslim family but I wasn’t properly following the example of the pious predecessors. It is only when I made my pilgrimage to Mecca that I realized how immodest I was. In Saudi Arabia, I saw all those women, completely veiled, protected from the lust of men, so close to Allah. They didn’t say anything to me but they changed me more than anyone. When I came back to Egypt, I understood that very few muslims actually understood their religion. I began attenting mosque where preachers from Saudi Arabia were giving speeches. This is where I met the mother of the man who would become my husband.
— You said that very few muslims knew what islam was about.
— It is still true today.
— Does this mean that they aren’t real muslims ?
— I am sure they sincerely believe they are pleasing Allah, but they’re not. The decadent West corrupted islam and the hearts of the believers. But, Allah Akbar, today those perverted places are slowly decaying and more and more people are opening their eyes and their heart. The foundation is doing its part in teaching people about the real message of islam.
The words of Umm Najeedah stayed with Maryam. She tried to listen more carefully during the courses. She also spent more time in the library and read books that she was not required to. She didn’t agree with the position of the foundation but she realized that she knew nothing of Islam, except for the very basis of it. If at least she could learn something, then maybe her stay wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time. Maybe she could even find evidence in the Quran that would convince her parents to let her come back.
The two women began to talk together more regularly. Slowly, Maryam began to find a friend in Umm Najeedah. Having someone to which she could talk freely eased her mind.
— Umm Najeedah, why does Allah wants us to look like this ? If He is so powerfull, how could a simple piece of cloth be of importance to Him ?
— Because it is not just a cloth Maryam. It is a sign that we are eager to obey Him, to follow His word and do good.
— Would He really refuse a woman in Jannah just because she didn’t veiled her face ?
— If she had been a good and godfearing woman, no, I don’t think He would. What matters to Him is our piety. Our dress is merely a reflection of that. If we truly love Allah, then we cover our entire body.
— But why ? Why would He want that ? This is what I can’t understand.
— For our own good my child. By covering our beauty, we stop to worry about it so we can focus on what truly matters. When you hide your body, you no longer have to compete with women to show who is the most beautiful. For men, it forces them to not judge you on your appearance but on your character, for who you are rather on how you look. The veil is a way for everyone to focus on your faith, which is the only thing that matters.
Maryam tried to think to contradict Umm Najeedah but she couldn’t. She remembered her jealousy when another girl managed to get the attention of someone she was interested in, all the money she spent on the latest fashion and makeup. Her obsession with boys lead to a catastrophy in her grades more than once. She realized she had no plan for her future. She went to study arabic litterature because she heard it was easy and she would have to work hard. She never thought about her future beyond what was necessary as her parents took care of her every need. She should have been more grateful and obeyed them. Maybe…
Maybe they were right to send her here.
Maryam woke up before her alarm clock rang. She got dressed and joined her fellow students for preparing breakfast. She used to hate this, it felt like slavery to her and didn’t put more effort than what was required of her. Now, she wanted to do a good work. She wanted to prepare meals that the other women would enjoy as much as her. For so long, she had been selfish, thinking only about her own needs and feelings and never about those of others.
She read the Quran with greater interest. She had always dismissed the book as a bunch of sexist and backward nonsense. Her lack of focus during the Quran reading sessions made her miss the wisdow of the holy book. Now, she realized how beautiful it was. Every word had a meaning and carried a simple yet complex message. It was a complete way of life. A sadness took hold of her when she realized that if she had been more open minded, she could have enjoy the beauty of islam much sooner. But she also found joy in knowing that she had found her way back to where she belonged.
Three months after she had arrived to the foundation, Maryam prepared herself in her room to go to class. She put on her modest black clothes which concealed her feminine forms. Once she tied her niqab, she was about to go out when she noticed something in the mirror. The slit of the niqab revealed her eyes. She had always left them unveiled, it had become her routine, so much she stopped noticing the contrast it created. This time however, she saw how beautiful her eyes were. Allah had been most generous with her by giving her beauty. It was her duty to not display it in public so she wouldn’t distract the men. Before, she was scared of hiding the most human part of her body, fearing her personnality would disapear as well. But she was no longer afraid. She now had more selfconfidence than ever. She wouldn’t ceased to exist because of the veil. On the opposite, she would assert her identity. An identity she denied for too long.
With resolution, she took the extra layer between her fingers and draw it unto her face. Her sight became blurry but she could see without problem. A simple gesture, yet it made her proud, as she knew she did the right thing. For as long as she could remember, she had always tried to attract the attention of everyone around her, to make them know she was there and should pay attention. For boys, she was willing to almost prostitute herself so she would notice her beauty and ask her out. Not anymore. From now on, she would only reveal her face to her family. The only aspect of her that strangers would notice would be her piety. A human form, completely covered in black, without any possibility to discern her age, her silhouette, her beauty. All they could deduced was that she loved Allah so much she willingly hide everything. And as the Prophet said, she would therefore be know as a respectable woman.
Her parents came to the campus, six months after leaving their daughter in the hands of the foundation. When she heard the news, Maryam was overwhelmed with joy. She had so much to tell them.
Umm Najeedah escorted her to the meeting room where her parents were waiting. When Maryam appeared in front of them, they were surprised, incapable of distinguishing which of the black ghost was their daughter. They soon found out when Maryam rushed towards them and hugged them both at the same time.
— Mum, dad, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. You always loved me and I did nothing but dishonor you. I beg you to forgive me. I understand now how much I’ve sinned.
Her parents said nothing, but she felt how happy they were to see her. They hugged her as if they would never let her go.
— Are you ready to go home Maryam ? her father finally asked.
Maryam looked at him, caught by surprise.
— The foundation has been keeping us informed of your progress each week. We have been impressed by your behavior. It is clear you have learned.
— Indeed, added Umm Najeedah. You rejected the truth at first but you gradually accepted it. If you remember everything you learned here, you will be saved.
Maryam didn’t know how to react. She was happy to go back to her home but she had come to love this place and she would miss its atmosphere. She came to Umm Najeedah and bowed slightly.
— Thank you so much for your help. Without you, I would still be lost.
— I am not the one to thank. It is Allah who guided you back to Him. Never forget that He will be present with you and you will never have to fear anything.
— I won’t Umm Najeedah.
Maryam left the campus in her black clothes, a gift from the foundation for a pious young lady. She got in the car and they drove back home. Maryam kept her face veiled, at the surprise of her parents.
— You can remove your niqab sweetheart, her father said. No one will notice you.
— Thank you dad, but I want to keep it until were home.
They arrived just in time for the prayers. Maryam wasted no time and hurried herself to the bathroom to purify herself. While their parents were doing the same thing, she got their prayer rugs. As her mother was about to stand by the side of her husband, Maryam interrupted her.
— No mum, the women must pray behind the men, this way we don’t distract them.
Her mother was a little desoriented, to say the least, but she followed Maryam’s advice and prayed at her side. This experience was like no other, to pray with her parents, to act in unisson, to touch the ground with their forehead at the same time, showing their devotion and their unity as a family. When they were done, her mother was on her way to the kitchen to cook.
— No mum, stay with dad, I will prepare lunch, objected Myriam.
Once again, her parents were too surprised to say anything. Half an hour later, when they began to eat, they complimented her for the food.
— Myriam, have you thought about you are going to do next ? her mother asked.
— No mum, I didn’t give much thought about that when I was there.
— There is no rush, added her father. You just finished an important part of your life, you can take as much time as you need to figure out your future.
After they finished eating, Maryam cleaned the table and washed the dishes. She then went to her room. Nothing had change since she left. The posters of rock bands were still there, the fashion magazines lying on the ground, the music albums ready to be played on her desk. Items from her previous life. After picking a big plastic bag, she put all of them in it. Her mother came as she was cleaning her room.
— What are you doing ? You got those albums for your birthday.
— Music is haram mum. It is a distraction from Allah.
Maryam continued what she was doing without noticing the shocked expression on her mother’s face.
The friday that followed, Maryam asked that they went to another mosque that the one they usually attented, which they agreed. It had been a long time since the three of them didn’t went together to the friday prayers. When they arrived, her parents were very surprised to see that most men wore a prayer cap and a traditionnal white dress, while the women were almost all dressed in black. The majority didn’t cover their face but many did. Maryam was one of the more modest ones whereas her mother appeared liberal in comparison.
After the prayers, the imam gave a speech, reminding the men and the women that it was their duty to help their brothers and sisters in islam to improve their faith, especially those who didn’t embrace the salafi way. The speech appealed to Maryam, as it was this attitude that lead her back to islam. At the entrance of the mosque, as Maryam and her mother were about to leave, the young woman saw a black ghost, dressed just like her. She was standing next to a table with a pile of prospectus. Maryam went instinctively towards her.
— Assalam alaykum sister, said the woman.
— Walaykum salam, answered Maryam. What is this ?
— We are looking for brothers and sisters to help us make dawah to young people, especially in the universities. The courses and the environment they study in lead to a lot of corruption. It is our responsibilty to help them.
Maryam immediatly voluntered for this.
The monday that followed, Maryam was back to the Cairo University. Many faces were differents but the place didn’t changed at all. All those men and women, freely mixing with each other… Everywhere, Maryam saw sin, done as it was acceptable. How wicked the world was. She silently prayed that Allah lead them all to the path of salvation. As for her, Maryam was waiting outside the library, giving prospectus to students, inviting them to attend salafist meeting and conferences. Then she saw them. Mina and Djamila, walking side by side, talking cheerfully, trying to avoid the hidden look of the black ghost in front of them. They were took by surprise when Maryam came towards them. Even more when she hugged them both at the same time.
— I’m so happy to see you girls.
— Maryam ? Mina asked, confused.
— In the flesh.
— W… Where have you been ? Why… why are you wearing those things ?
— We kept asking your parents, but they never said anything, Djamila added.
— It’s okay, I’ll explain everything to you.
And she did. They sat on a bench and she told them her entire story. Both Djamila and Mina were overwhelmed by it.
— But you’re free now, Mina said. You can take off those things !
— No one is forcing me Mina, it is my choice. I want to please Allah and no one can force someone to do that.
— But why would He want you to be dress like that ? Djamila objected.
Underneath her niqab, Maryam smiled. She knew when she heard this question. She wouldn’t be able to save every girl in this place, but she was determined to save her friends. Like her, they would find redemption.