Chapter 1 1
MAYBE THE PRAYERS HAD FINALLY worked. jameela scanned the growing crowd in the New York Public Library’s sixth floor. She was impressed. Her publicist, Arlene Baker, waved. She had on her uniform: a powder blue pantsuit last seen on Hillary Clinton or Chairman Mao. Jameela waved back.
“Great crowd,” gushed Arlene as she tottered up to Jameela in matching heels, windmilling her arms to maintain her balance. She air-kissed Jameela with her perfect raspberry pout. Jameela wondered how her lipstick never came off. Maybe it was tattooed on.
“I haven’t seen a book launch this big in a while,” Arlene said. “And I’ve been to two others already this week.”
“I know why they’re here,” said Jameela. “I’ve been trying something new.”
Jameela hadn’t prayed since Jamal. But now there was something she needed badly. After decades of work, Jameela had finished her memoir. She looked up, trying to find God in the tin-stamped ceiling.
Remember what we talked about, she thought. You will make my book go right to the top of the New York Times bestseller list like You do for all the white people You love so much: J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, or even better, Margaret Atwood. That woman doesn’t need any more number one books. And she has enough hair on her head to stuff a whole pillow. Do any of those people even believe in You? Probably not. In the Qur’an, Prophet Solomon asked for a kingdom greater than anyone’s before or after, plus to talk to animals, and You gave it to him. So now it’s my turn. I want a literary career greater than anyone else’s. I don’t want to talk to ants or anything. Unless they know how to order a book from Amazon. So that’s it. IMMORTAL LITERARY SUCCESS. If You need to send me a sign, use a grilled cheese sandwich. That’s what You do for Christians, right?
Arlene touched Jameela’s arm and brought her back to earth. “That’s so funny, sweetie, I thought you said ‘praying.’ So much press here. So fantastic. And your mom and her friends came, too. How sweet.”
Jameela turned to see her mother, Nusrat, arriving with five of her Pakistani friends, all wearing bright, jewel-toned shalwar chemises. She acknowledged them with a curt nod, her right hand in her jacket pocket, rubbing the blue marble prayer beads her brother, Jamal, had given her as a child. People streamed in by the dozens. She should have tried praying long ago. Who knew God could be so responsive?
But then Courtney Leland entered. Jameela froze. The familiar chill of dread ran up her spine, even after all these years. Why was that woman here?
Oh no. Suddenly it made sense why people were rushing to get front row seats. Jameela clutched her prayer beads so tightly her fingers hurt. Fear and anxiety sparked through her body. She was instantly transported back to high school, a time when she and her mother had constantly fought over her clothing choices. She was forced to wear pants under her dresses, and any hairstyle besides pigtails was deemed too alluring. If Anne of Green Gables had been brown, with a unibrow and a mustache, Jameela would have been her doppelgänger.
During that tumultuous period, her brother had convinced her to join the yearbook staff to gain experience as a writer and develop confidence. By her senior year, she had become editor of the school yearbook and eked out a niche for herself—until Courtney joined the team and, like a black hole, absorbed all whose eyes gazed upon her. In that year’s yearbook, their group photograph featured a smiling Courtney standing in the front of everyone, hands on hips, partly blocking Jameela’s face. The caption editor was typed under her photo.
She looked exactly the same now as she had back then, maybe a bit thinner and blonder. Her clothing choices perhaps had become more cutting edge. She wore knee-high black suede boots with stiletto heels over black leggings, a miniskirt, and an orange jacket with metal zippers everywhere. It looked like she’d just thrown the outfit together, but Jameela could tell that it was all high-end designer. I am not in high school anymore. I am an accomplished woman. Please, everyone look at me, she thought. The cameras swung toward Courtney. Arlene came and sat beside a devastated Jameela.
“How did she know about this event?” Jameela whispered through clenched teeth. Reporters mobbed Courtney, who was turning her head at an angle perfected by a thousand Instagram photos. Her lips were parted just so, and her eyes looked off into an unknown distance. She even took out a pair of tortoiseshell glasses and posed with one of the ends lightly touching her lip. Was that even sanitary? Courtney put them on while tossing her hair, which also seemed to know exactly where to land. She screamed “sexy librarian,” while Jameela suddenly felt matronly in her sensible brown walking shoes.
Arlene picked a piece of fluff off her lapel.
The truth finally hit Jameela. “You didn’t!”
“Jameela, listen to me. You’re a first-time author of a good book, yes, but you don’t have name recognition yet. We have a hard time getting people to Margaret Atwood anymore. It was the only way.”
“What do you mean, ‘the only way’? It’s my book launch! Why does she get top billing?”
“I may have suggested to her that it was going to be an interview-style launch with—”
“Courtney’s going to interview me?”
“You were best friends in high school, so it makes perfect sense.”
“We were not best—”
Arlene stepped on Jameela’s toe as Courtney approached the women, a cloud of perfume following her like low-lying cumulus clouds.
“Arlene, thanks for asking me to be part of your event. It was so kind of you.”
“Thanks for fitting us in,” replied Arlene.
Jameela could sense Arlene was trying hard not to gush. If they hadn’t been surrounded by people, Jameela would have throttled Arlene for picking the one person on earth who had betrayed her during her most vulnerable time. She had to appear gracious, or people would suspect the truth: she was jealous of Courtney’s career success.
“Yeah, thanks,” she added.
“Oh, you’re so welcome,” said Courtney, turning her attention to Jameela. “We were besties in high school,” she told Arlene. “Jameela let me take over the yearbook so I could use it on my résumé. And it worked! I became the editor in chief of Dazzle. Launched my literary career. Under my leadership, we now have more subscribers than Cosmo.”
“That’s so kind of Jameela,” exclaimed Arlene. “Always thinking of others before herself.”
“Yes, so how could I keep away when I heard about Jameela’s book? I wanted to be part of the excitement.”
Jameela’s fingers dug deeply into Arlene’s arm.
“Ouch!” she yelped, pulling her arm away.
Thank God guns aren’t allowed in public libraries. “You shouldn’t have. Really, you must be so busy with your own book promotion.” Jameela tried to slow down her breathing.
“Think nothing of it. My own parties are getting exhausting. But enough about me. Nothing like the first book. Almost like having a baby, isn’t it? Except that it doesn’t ruin your body. Oh, but you look great, considering. Did you only have one?” Courtney looked critically at Jameela’s stomach.
“Thanks,” said Jameela, pulling her cardigan protectively around her. “Is that gray hair?”
Arlene yanked Jameela toward her and whispered fiercely, “Behave. She brings more publicity to your event. Look, she’s already onstage. Follow her.” Arlene went up to the mic and took some papers out of her powder blue purse. Jameela wondered if she’d had each piece of her outfit dyed together in the same vat.
“I’d like to welcome everyone to the official launch of Jameela Green’s Mainly Muslim, a tour de force memoir about a woman born in suburbia to conservative Pakistani parents. To help us celebrate, we have a special guest, Courtney Leland, the author of Will Anyone Save Me?—a book about her harrowing year in captivity in Iraq before her dramatic rescue by Navy SEALs. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than thirty weeks with no sign of slowing down.”
Courtney sat in a plush burgundy velvet chair opposite Jameela, who saw her short skirt get shorter. She reeked of sophistication and glamour, while Jameela felt like a frumpy, middled-aged mother. After the applause died down, Courtney took off her orange jacket to reveal a transparent black blouse with a racy red bra underneath. Every eye turned to her. Even Jameela had a hard time looking away. Courtney took the mic, which was sitting on a small table between them.
“So, Jameela, I’ve read your book. It was very funny.”
“Thank you. I thought I could read from the first chapter?”
Courtney looked like she’d just realized the event was about Jameela and not her.
“Is it a short chapter?”
Jameela ignored her and opened her book to the section she’d marked, and began reading.
I picked up a bottle of soda from the grocery shelf, but my mother snatched it and eyed the label suspiciously. “It says root beer.” She put it back.
“But, Ummi, it’s not real alcohol, it’s just a name, and it tastes good,” I whined.
My mother stared at me. “Where did you drink it?”
It was a rare fatal error.
“My friend Emily shared her can with me at school.”
My mother was furious. “What kind of principal runs your high school? They ban peanuts but allow pretend alcohol? No wonder this society is so dangerous, full of alcoholics and drug users. I’ll be speaking to him about indoctrination on Monday.”
I silently returned the root beer to the soft drink—
“Was your mother always so strict?” interrupted Courtney.
Not always, thought Jameela. She remembered trips to the West Coast when she and Jamal were young. Those were the days when her mother didn’t care about the scantily clad men and women lying on the beach or what anyone was drinking. She was another person. Jameela had been fourteen and had just started high school where Jamal was a senior. He died a week before his graduation. “She became strict when I started high school.”
“Speaking of high school, didn’t your mother have an issue with the shorts that were mandatory in gym class? You rebelled by wearing them at school behind her back, even though you didn’t know how to shave your legs. You describe yourself as looking like a hairy tarantula in boxers, but I thought you looked adorable.”
Jameela bristled at Courtney for trivializing her personal stories of assimilation. “My mother wasn’t exposed to hair removal. Boys and girls both wore cotton shalwar chemises at school. That’s a long shirt with baggy trousers, so their legs were always covered and not judged the way they are here.”
Jamal had been the one to tell her to be patient with their parents. Shorts and gym class were foreign to her mother, who had grown up in Pakistan and needed time to adjust. He came up with the idea of Jameela wearing track pants, and even went to talk to the principal about changing the dress code, which allowed Jameela to participate in sports at her mother’s comfort level. But after Jamal died, there was no one to mediate, and a wall went up between Jameela and her parents. They wanted her to become a doctor, but she wanted to study creative writing and become a writer. She might as well have told them she wanted to become a ferret. If Jamal had lived, she would have had an ally. But after he died, she had no one until she met Murray in college, where Jameela secretly took writing classes and started chronicling her experiences growing up in an eccentric American-Muslim-Pakistani household. It had taken her a decade and half to finish her memoir and find a publisher, but here she was.
Courtney turned to Jameela. “But the cultural differences are deeper than clothes. Some Muslims don’t date in high school. Why is that?”
Jameela was glad that brown skin could hide the color rushing to her face. She knew what Courtney was trying to get out of her. She hadn’t written about Jamal.
“Some Muslims, like some Christians, believe dating or ‘getting to know’ someone is a means to an end, specifically marriage. And if they’re not ready for marriage, they don’t date.”
“Oh, please. What’s wrong with just dating for fun and sex? This isn’t the eighteenth century,” Courtney snorted, while looking at the audience for support. Some people tittered uncomfortably.
“Some Muslims want to have sex after marriage. It’s a religious thing.” Jamal had been handsome and popular in school, and girls prayed he’d notice them, not realizing that if they’d prayed, literally, he probably would have. Jamal started congregational Juma prayers every Friday for the Muslim students, but sometimes non-Muslim students came to listen to his sermons because they offered solace, especially during exams. Jamal lived for soothing souls. He always talked about becoming a social worker.
Jameela gave Arlene a look. But it was too late.
“There were some cute guys in high school who were missing out,” said Courtney, twisting a strand of her hair. “I remember one guy in particular who didn’t seem interested in women at all unless they were Mother Teresa.”
Jameela’s hand was too damp to rub the prayer beads in her pocket.
“When we were in high school together, your brother was killed. Why isn’t he in the book?”
A train whistle blared in Jameela’s head, which started to throb. She had deliberately chosen to omit that part of her life from the memoir. Her editor realized she wasn’t ready to write about Jamal yet. Arlene, despite her faults, could read the panic in Jameela’s face and leapt up.
Before the audience could even register Courtney’s question, Arlene was at the mic. “There are so few memoirs of women of color. White women get a chance to tell our stories in print all the time. And quite frankly get more of the shelf space than we deserve. It’s time to rectify that. Jameela, what inspired you to write your book?”
Jameela knew she needed to derail Courtney with her answer so she’d abandon her line of questioning. There was only one way forward. “I thought a funny book about the life of an ordinary Muslim woman would help the world see us as regular people, just people who may have stricter parents. If female Muslims exist in literature, it’s usually as a victim of Muslim men, who are portrayed as being brutal and violent.”
She felt a pang of guilt, but it was too late. There had been rumbling in the literary community that Courtney had purposefully set out to be kidnapped in Iraq. She was supposed to be meeting with her Middle East counterpart for Dazzle when she decided to head out for a “tour” of the war-ravaged country against the advice of locals. She immediately got kidnapped by insurgents, who thought she was a spy. It caused an international outcry and an equally spectacular rescue. The book and subsequent movie deal meant Courtney could quit her job at Dazzle and ride the speaking circuit for the rest of her life.
Courtney’s smile wavered. The camera swerved back to her as she shrugged a blond lock over her shoulder. “Did I mention that I’ve just sold my book rights to Warner Studios?”
“Who’ll play you?” yelled a woman in the front row.
“I’m hoping for Jennifer Lawrence. We have the same eyes. And she’s just as slender as I am. Well, maybe not quite, but it’s important for people to see women with different body types.”
There was a moment of silence, and then a woman wearing a turtleneck under a floral muumuu put up her hand. “Jameela’s trying to break down stereotypes by writing about ordinary Muslim women, and your film is going to portray Muslim men as evil, oppressive monsters. Aren’t the two of you on opposite sides of the fence?”
The room fell silent. Jameela could sense Courtney fidgeting. She put her orange jacket back on and hugged herself. “I was kept captive in a tiny room with no window for over three hundred and seventy days. I thought I’d never see my mother again. She’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was captured—” Her voice cracked, and she started to cry. There was a sudden commotion as audience members got up and tried to comfort her. One woman offered her a tissue, which Courtney accepted and used to delicately dab her eyes. Jameela noted that she was careful not to smudge her eyeliner.
Arlene gripped the microphone. “Okay, everyone, I think that’s enough of the interview portion of tonight’s event. Jameela and Courtney will be in the atrium to sign books.”
Jameela moved toward Arlene, but there were so many people swarming around Courtney that it took a few minutes to reach her. “No more questions for me? I thought this was my book launch.”
“We’d never recover after that performance,” said Arlene. “We should just salvage what we can from the day.”
“Courtney is selling her books here?” Indignation filled Jameela. It had been decades since high school, and Courtney still managed to upstage her. She had more money and fame than Jameela, so why keep haunting her?
“It was the only way we could get her to come.” Arlene swallowed, noticing Jameela’s growing anger. “She charges fifty thousand dollars per appearance. We were lucky we could get her for free. Now, match my breathing. It’ll help you deal with your rage and jealousy issues.” Arlene held Jameela’s shoulders and stared at her until their breathing was in sync.
Jameela’s heart rate came down, and she looked at the long lineup at the book table. Arlene had a point. Books about Muslim women leading boring lives in the suburbs didn’t exactly burn up the bestseller lists—even if they were funny. “Women’s Vic Lit” was a genre unto itself, and if you happened to be a victim of Muslims, even better. How could she compete with that?
Jameela took out her favorite purple gel pen and moved to the table where a pile of her books sat untouched. With a cover illustration of a tree with bright yellow and orange leaves, it could have been a book about nursery rhymes. Courtney’s had a photo of her with perfect winged eyeliner in a formfitting fuchsia dress. She was peering out from behind a chain-link fence. Like a snake self-correcting, the long line of people shifted so it was in front of Courtney. The only people left standing in front of Jameela’s table were her mother and her friends. Nusrat picked up one of her books. “I’ve just started a book club.”
“Since when do you read anything other than the Qur’an?” asked Jameela.
“Since I discovered J. K. Rowling. Have you heard of her?”
“Yes, there are seven books in the series. You should read them.”
“Isn’t that a sin, with all the wizards and magic?”
“It’s just make-believe, Jameela. Don’t be such a fundamentalist. I love that white woman. Now, she can write.”
It drove Jameela nuts when her mother flip-flopped on issues that used to be sacrosanct. After Jamal’s death, her mother cracked down on anything that seemed too Western. Jameela wasn’t allowed to trick-or-treat because Halloween was a giant pagan candy fest celebrating the devil himself. It didn’t help that little children in red devil costumes, complete with pitchforks, rang their doorbell. It was a miracle that Satan himself didn’t emerge from the bowels of Hell, possess people and make them murder their neighbors, or have sex with them, the latter being worse. Nusrat forced the family to sit in the basement while the doorbell rang all evening, until Jameela heard eggs break against the windows. And now, after ruining her childhood, Nusrat had turned the rules around when it suited her. The only good thing that had come out of Jameela’s wretched memories was this memoir.
Nusrat flicked through the copy she was holding. “If you cut us a deal, maybe we’ll read your book next month.”
Jameela took in the scene. God was clearly screwing with her. She needed professional help. There was only one place to go.