Islamic Fiction Contest Winner - 2012
The New Moon
By: Amani Jabbar
There it sits. Low in the sky, and pale, but there just the same. She is silvery blue, striking against a navy sky. Some call her Al-Hilal. Her image is as sharp as a cat’s claw. She is the crescent moon. She is the new moon. And she is new. Weak, fledgling, but declaring her presence just the same. She cries out for attention.
“Come to your success,” she proclaims.
Those who declare themselves Muslim must take notice. The holy month now begins. Ramadan is here, the holiest month of the year. The month of fasting, prayers, charity, and forgiveness is here. The month sits lying in wait for those who wish to use her to her full potential. The miraculous month is here. Woe to those who ignore her. Evil is chained. The fast can begin.
Some are blessed enough to view her for themselves. Using binoculars or telescopes, they search her out, staring attentively at the night sky; they hope to be the first to declare its sighting. Others can simply wait for the announcement, “Ramadan h’na” sandwiched between weather and soccer coverage on the evening news. A click of the mouse can confirm her appearance; moonsighting.com gets 250,000 hits an hour as the world awaits her beauty.
Then there are those like Layla Benyamin. She anticipated this Ramadan more than she ever had in the past. She stands atop Stone Mountain and revels in the new month. Layla holds her father’s aged binoculars to her eyes and breaths in deeply. Even the air seems cleaner. “It’s here,” she pronounces to herself.
Somehow the sight of the hilal makes Layla happy and sad at the same time. Layla always had a lingering fear in the back of her mind, “What if I can’t do it? What if I fail?” These were the same questions she always asked herself when faced with a challenge. She always seemed to push through. This time she had her doubts, but this year she needed the cleansing fast more than she ever had before.
Layla’s butterscotch skin stands out against her cream colored scarf. Her brown eyes stare at the crescent. Her eyes seem to plead. She was someone who tried to see God in everything, and she could clearly see the force of God in the crescent moon, who else could have crafted something so beautiful, she asks herself.
A few tears fall from her eyes, as she remembers the year she has just survived. “May He accept our fast, prayers and charity.” She wiped her tears with her bare hands, and smoothes her hands over her wide-legged khaki pants. She turns and began to walk towards the path that would take her back down to the ground.
First the hands-- wash them three times each. Then move onto the face. Let the warm water wash over you, from the scalp to the chin. Next the arms, they must be washed all the way up to just past the elbows. A swipe of a wet hand over the hair is sufficient. Finally, the feet. “Right before left, always right before left.” Let the water pour over them. These are the movements of wudu, ablution. These are the moves that must be completed before the five daily prayers. They’re meant to purify, to cleanse, and yet she still doesn’t feel clean. On this the fifth night of Ramadan, Layla performs the ritual ablution, but it feels perfunctory. She feels as though she was missing that eagerness that she usually has during Ramadan. She can hear the many voices of the people who she seemed to hardly see outside of Ramadan, and the lively conversation that always seemed to erupt after the fasting people had taken in the sweet dried dates and water that is considered a prophetic tradition. She lingers in front of the mirror, fixing her blue fringed scarf. She wipes and re-wipes her hands with the coarse brown paper towel, and breathes in deeply. She finally opens the door bravely, and turns to the right, and is assaulted by all of the familiar faces she has known for so long.
The different ethnic groups of the mosque have taken their usual positions around the prayer hall. The Indo-Pakistani ladies in their richly colored selwar kameez sit under the only window in the room. Most of them wear their dupattas loosely around their faces, their thick braids occasionally peaking out of the casual head coverings.
There are a handful of Arab women seated near the door, as usual. They tend towards dark colors. Leyla notices how elegant their abayas look elegant in shades navy, black and brown. The coordinating hijabs hold a stated sophistication, pinned perfectly in place, and accessorized with beads and baubles. Sister Amany, and older Egyptian women donned in black and gold pours coffee from a white carafe. The women are engrossed in conversation, as Sister Amany pours the strong beverage into tiny gold-rimmed mugs.
Then, there is the African-American group. They sit in the middle. They are mélange of style and dress. There are those who donned turbans, perfectly pinned hijabs, loosely draped shawls and every variation of the three. The women of the mosque are as brightly colored and attractive as a well-tended flower garden. Their smiles are free to blossom in the “women only” section of the mosque, liberated from the gaze of men. Layla is a bee, floating through the prayer hall and sampling the scents and flavors that each group has to offer. She slowly drinks the strongly flavored coffee from the Arab sisters, samples an intensely sweet sticky sweet from the indo-Pakistani ladies, and finally makes her way to her home base: the African-Americans. She offers her greetings to each woman in the group and takes her sit on the outskirts of the clique.
“Allahu Akbar…Allahu Akbar…,” soon the call to prayer is announced, the words pumped loudly into the women’s section through stereo system. The women line up shoulder –to-shoulder to make their evening prayer. Layla stands as the other ladies. A touch on the shoulder from an older sister is all it takes to bring her back. Hadn’t it begun with a touch on the shoulder? Hadn’t it seemed innocent enough before it had progressed, much too fast? It seemed that all horrible things seem to reach their crux in an instant, and then linger much too long. A touch on the shoulder, then a push against the wall, then a rough hand in a spot where it didn’t belong. The beautiful recitation is now lost on her. The shame, and the fear are tangible and tears are pooling down her face when she suddenly realizes that the prayer is over, and she has missed another chance to cleanse herself. Sister Sajeda, a beautiful African-American whom Layla has known forever is hugging her. “Oh Layla, isn’t his recitation beautiful?! This is one of the things I love about Ramadan. The Qur’an truly touches our hearts now more than ever,” she doesn’t realize that Layla has hardly heard the prayer.
After the prayer, Layla’s thoughts were on that night. She thought about the vile feeling that “Uncle” Safil had left her with.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll give you a ride home. Trust me,” he had reassured her. She had known it was inappropriate. Her hands had smelled like onions and garlic that night. She had been preparing food all day for the Muslim Student Association’s spring picnic. She had been tired, and ready to get home. Didn’t shaytan always prey upon the weak? So, she hadn’t called her parents as she should have. She had accepted the ride. She tried not to allow her mind to dredge up that night, but she knew the memory would always be there, just beneath the surface, waiting for a something as innocent as a touch on the shoulder to come pouring out.
Now, Layla sat moving the dish of heavily seasoned chicken and rice around on her plate, trying desperately to forget.
The night of power is a mysterious night. It is hidden in the last ten nights of Ramadan. Many scholars believe that it falls on the 21, 23, 25, 27 or 29 night of the holy month. Even the most secular of Muslims, those who don’t take the time to pray or fast, stop and attempt to search for that night. It is believed that the night of power is worth a thousand months spent in prayer.
So Layla is at the mosque again, searching for the night that is better than more than 83 years spent in continuous worship of the creator. The mosque is packed. Worshipers are crammed into every spare nook and cranny of the place. The mosque has been decorated for the occasion. Blue star-shaped lights decorate the outside if the structure.
Even though the place is cramped and hot, everyone is smiling, happy and the anticipation is growing.
Layla stands in prayer, shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the other women. She has decided that tonight is the night when she will bare her soul to her Lord. Tonight is the night she would seek the guidance and strength that she needed to do what she knew must be done. As she goes through the familiar motions of the prayer, it begins to hit her. The spirit of the over a hundred women in the room, each saying their own prayer, each reaching out to the Creator in the best way they know how gets to her in a way that it never has before. The room almost seems to vibrate with the force of all of the women gathered in the room for the same reason: worship God.
The tears are hot and salty, but this time she can feel the cleansing force she has been looking for. Suddenly, she knows what must be done, and she is praying for the strength to be able to do it. She looks around the room, and realizes she is not the only one crying, many women, of many races and ages are calling out to their Lord. Sister Amany, the Egyptian woman who always seems to be smiling, is weeping as well, her eyes are red and Layla wonders what she is praying for.
Sister Nafeesa, the young woman with the smoothest ebony skin Layla has ever seen, is crying too. What would seem like a depressing scene is not though, because in those tears, in the collective dirge, is hope. There is hope that after the purge is over, there will be a new beginning on the other side. And, suddenly, Layla realizes that that’s the point of it all.
So, it won’t be easy when she finally tells the truth of what happened on that night. Many will refuse to believe her, and that will sting, but she will know that she is doing what she must, and that the new beginning will be waiting for her on the other side as reliable as the new moon.