It is a man’s voice, low and sombre. My eyes drift down the hall that leads off from the snug kitchen where I sit. In the milky light of the November sunset, I see Musa, a wiry middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard, prostrated in prayer. “Allahu Akbar,” he repeats, sitting up. Beside him, his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Nuna, follows his cue, her bent head enwrapped in a scarf of delicate floral print.
I glance across the table at Miriam, Nuna’s mother. Her small shoulders are slumping, her eyes distant despite the weak smile she’s pasted to her face. Quiet fills the room as the last light drains from the windows. It is November 14, a Saturday, and this weekend I am the guest of Nuna and her normally-effusive Egyptian family. It was in this devout Muslim household in a New York City suburb that I first heard the news of the Paris attacks.
* * *
I had been looking forward to my visit to Nuna’s New Jersey home for several weeks. I’d recently relocated to New York City from Amman, Jordan, where I’d spent a year working with a UN relief agency. Nuna and I first met in college and had maintained our friendship over years and distance. When her family learned that my new address was just an hour from their town they began sending me regular invitations to come “home.” I was happy to accept.
Nuna met me on the frigid sidewalk outside Manhattan’s Port Authority on Friday, November 13. As we boarded a Jersey-bound bus, she insisted on paying my fare. “You’re the guest, habibti!” My own family on my father’s side is Arab—so I knew better than to argue with her generosity.
It was dark by the time we reached Nuna’s sleepy suburban block. Across the Atlantic, Paris was reeling, hundreds mowed down by bullets of blind hate—but we were yet unaware. We hugged Nuna’s mother, Miriam, a petite woman who wore her soft scarf in a casual, bandana-like twist. After embracing me—and fretting over my cold hands—Miriam scurried off to arrange our dinner and Nuna led me to her room.
Nuna’s room is small and neat. I admired a picture of her graduating class from the Islamic high school she attended in a neighboring New Jersey town. In the frame, fourteen beaming teenagers in coordinated colors pose on a lush, green lawn. A moment later, my eyes strayed to my phone, and I noticed several bulletins illuminated the screen. A blur of unsettling words leap towards me, and I swing around towards Nuna. “Uh—Is something happening in Paris?” “What?…Oh no.” I flipped open a newsfeed to read aloud— “coordinated attacks… kalashnikovs…over one hundred dead…” our horror cut deeper with every word.
“Mama!” Nuna’s eyes were wide and white.
Miriam filed into the room, her small face drawn and grey.
For a moment we were silent, each of us bent over our phones, fingers tapping and scrolling with urgent dread. We murmured headlines to one another –”Paris on lockdown.” “five attacks?” “Seven?” “Blood on the streets,” “Open fire…” Nuna slipped away; I heard a door click shut. When she returned, her dark eyelashes were slick.
The rest of the evening we’d struggle to break the surface of our silence, our words like useless swats against a darkness bigger than language.
With the rest of the watching world, we’d feel both resonance and irreducible distance with each horrific update, our bones flash-frozen by the unaskable questions. We’d sit in the living room amidst photos framing ordinary, precious scenes — grandparents, games, graduations — and we’d mourn for all the families that would never be whole again.
And then, just as the pace of the death toll began to relent, journalists began reporting a new detail—and the secret fears of Nuna and Miriam leapt to life.
“A witness reports hearing “Allahu Akbar” shouted as the terrorists opened fire.”
Nuna’s eyes were wet again, dark and glistening against her flushing face. Miriam’s head moved slowly from side to side. “Here we go again.” Under their breath, both Nuna and Miriam began to pray, reflexive, weary prayers.
That night I lay in Nuna’s darkened room–she was stretched on the floor in the next room, heavy-minded under blankets, insisting I take her bed. The blackness behind my eyelids was tinged with wild, wailing red. A chorus of unnatural truths filled my head—I thought of the hundreds of lives ruptured in Paris and thousands of cold, wasted bodies in the Middle East. I recalled the voice of my friend Mohammad, calling me from Aleppo, Syria last week—“I say goodbye to my children every morning, just in case.” I thought of Nuna’s eyes, crowded with competing worries, as the name of her God was once again implicated in the most unholy of acts.
A reckless chain of tragedy and hate—lying in the dark, I could not see the end of the loop. I wondered if there is a chance that the scales might ever be tipped towards justice, towards peace.
Nuna is someone who believes there is. Against all odds, she believes in God, and perhaps more miraculously, in mankind. At least she tries, but it’s harder these days with so much desecration. Like me, she wonders about God as cities like Paris, Beirut, and Homs fall to pieces. She is often stopped dead in her tracks by the pain of the world. Still, she says there is a faith that grips her deeper than doubt and she couldn’t shed it if she wanted to.
But neither can she avoid the way that human pain curdles into hate and falls like sulphur rain.
By the next morning the media is saturated with speculations, many including nefarious suggestions about “Muslim-sounding” names. Nuna resigns herself to the private hell this brings and says today she’ll stay off Facebook. “I don’t think I can take it right now.” Her fury is manifold. She rages against the barbaric imposters of Islam, and she bristles at all the ways she’s felt obligated to apologize for them. I look at my own feed and find it full of condolences for Parisian victims, but also peppered with scathing anger towards Arabs, towards Islam.
This vitriol feeds a subliminal fear that pulses through Nuna’s family in the wake of every terrorist attack—one of the countless ripples of the first crime. It is this fear that makes Nuna’s father glance twice as we leave for our walk Saturday morning. “Be extra careful,” he admonishes. Nuna chose a yellow scarf this morning, and it glows against the misty morning. We pause for one weary beat before opening the front door.
* * *
The rumored shout of “Allahu Akbar” begins to appear in every news update. It floats obscurely, attributed to no one but a nameless set of ears. Two words, foreign and monstrous in their attachment to so much murder. “God is great,” is the translation, and for Nuna, it should be a precious creed. Instead, she shakes a weary head at the appalling irony.
For breakfast, Nuna and I make pumpkin pancakes for her parents and younger sister. In the kitchen we brush elbows as we stir eggs and fry batter, our conversation a ragged zig-zag of levity and lament. We swap college memories; we wincingly check Twitter. I set the table; Nuna recounts the backlash she faced after Charlie Hebdo: “at least no one physically assaulted me.” Nuna has ceased praying in public too. “It doesn’t feel safe. I hate missing my prayers, but, you know, God is forgiving…”
I ask Nuna if she ever feels shame—not her own, but the kind that can be forced upon a person by the sheer force of collective ignorance. “I don’t feel shame at all,” she says, her dimpled jaw set strong.”This is as far from the real Islam as possible, I feel sorrow for what I know my faith teaches.” She resents that people expect her to explain or apologize for extremists, “I am sick of having to prove my worth.” She’s quiet for a moment, then resumes, smacking her spatula against the pan for emphasis:
“I had nothing to do with the attacks. My sisters–my dad–my mosque–It’s not us! I. Had. NOTHING. To. Do. With. Them.”
Her voice cracks more than once. She knows she’s mostly shouting into the wind.
The truth is, Nuna is a target for ISIS too. She’s innocent, upstanding, educated, and moderate—and ISIS doesn’t want coexistence for people like her. Her deepening isolation and the mushrooming fear between the so-called “West” and “Islam” are two critical goals of the terrorists. Across Europe and America, the sounds of war drums and slamming doors could very well be music to ISIS ears.
Nuna knows her grief is of a different kind and degree than the families of victims. And different too, from the thousands of war-torn drifters who are bracing against the anti-immigrant backlash. “Immigrant today, terrorist tomorrow,” shrieks one corner of Twitter, “I told you so,” croaks Trump.
Muslims must pray each evening at sunset. Nuna and her father withdraw a few minutes before dusk, leaving Miriam and me in the kitchen where we make careful, neutral small talk. When Musa’s first incantation reaches our ears, we fall silent.
I wonder if he believes it, in this moment.
“God is great.”
Tonight in Paris, the bells of Notre Dame will ring for the dead.
Nuna’s family once tried moving “back” to Egypt–but it didn’t last. America is their home, they say.
Silence falls. I glance back to the living room. Nuna and Musa stand in a motionless embrace, their figures dark and still against the fading light.