Hanifa stands outside Mustafa’s room, one hand on the door, looking in.
“Baba,” she says hesitantly. “Is something wrong?”
Her son doesn’t answer. His back, hunched over the laptop, is a stiff curve of resentment.
“Baba,” she tries again. “Did something happen? Did you have a fight with...” She tries to remember the name. He has found a new one in the last weeks. “Yasmin?”
“No,” Mustafa says. “Leave me alone.”
Hanifa sighs. Her husband, who had left to be with Allah two years ago, always said she was giving the boy too much freedom. But she had replied that this was the twenty first century and it was better to give him liberty to do as he wanted rather than sneak around behind their backs and do it anyway. So she’d gone out of her way to be as little like the other parents she knew as possible, to treat her son as an equal, not a possession.
Now, as so often of late, she wishes she knew a little more about the stranger who inhabits a room in her house and talks as little to her as he has to.
“Are you coming to dinner?” she asks. “Come and eat something, please.”
“No.” He still doesn’t look up. “You go and eat. I’m not hungry.”
“But – you haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
“I said I’m not hungry.”
She knows that tone of voice, knows that saying anything more will only cause him to blow up like a firecracker.
Hesitating a moment longer, she silently closes the door and leaves.
Nobody will be eating tonight.
Later, from the privacy of her bedroom, she calls her brother.
“I don’t think it’s anything serious,” Naeem says. “You know how teenagers get. You should see my daughters. It’s a job to get a civil word out of them these days.”
“I know, but...”
“You know how I’ve let him do as he wants. I’ve never forced him to go to the mosque or anything. I’ve allowed him to have girlfriends. I’ve bought him a bike. But still he’s always angry and unhappy.”
“Have you been going through his things or something?”
“Of course not!” She’s shocked. “What an idea!”
“Maybe he thinks you did. I’m not saying that’s so, but just maybe. You could try having a talk with him and telling him that you’ll respect his privacy, no matter what.”
“He knows that already.” She hesitates. “He spends so much time on the internet. I don’t know what he does there. I don’t know much about computers, can’t see what he’s up to. Do you think I should ask him to stop using it?”
“They do need it for their studies these days, but more than that, if you did stop him using it he’d just go to a cyber cafe or some place with free WiFi. You can’t really stop them using the net these days.”
“Well, what do you suggest I do, then?”
“Why not just wait and see? How are his college grades anyway?”
“No worse than before, I suppose,” she says.
“There you are then,” Naeem replies cheerfully. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Mustafa sits next to Yasmin on the narrow bench, looking down at his clenched hands on his lap so he does not have to see her face. He knows the expression that will be there – the large eyes wide with concern and apprehension. Sometimes he thinks she’s scared for him, and sometimes he thinks she’s scared of him. He no longer is sure if there’s a difference.
“It’s not just me,” he says. “They say these things to me, but they mean all Muslims. You, my mother, old Uncle Naeem, everybody.”
“And you’re letting them get to you, aren’t you?” Yasmin touches his hand with the tips of her long, delicate fingers. “You shouldn’t do that. Who wins if they destroy your peace of mind?”
“You think I’m overreacting.” Mustafa’s arm muscles are rigid with anger, like wood to Yasmin’s fingers. She draws them back and watches him. “But it’s not just words. They think we’re beneath human, and they treat us as beneath human too. You see how they sit behind video game consoles and bomb Muslims from the other side of the world? It’s all fine since they already say they’re fighting savages. That’s what they think we are, savages.”
“But it’s not all Muslims...”
“Don’t make me quote Pastor Niemöller at you. Before you know it, you won’t be able to find a job, or a place to stay, or even walk on the streets safely. Not that one can do that even now, really.”
“You really have been brooding thinking about this, haven’t you?” Yasmin bends to try and see his face, but he keeps his head averted. “Please, Mustafa, stop. Just stop.”
“Easy for you to say. You aren’t the one who has to read the poison these people spill online.”
“No. I avoid those websites.”
“Yes, because you aren’t politically aware. That’s a choice you made and I can’t force you to change it. But while you’re posting puppy pictures on Facebook, these people have made anti-Muslim racism totally socially acceptable. We’re the new Jews, the new blacks.”
“They just don’t know anything about our religion.”
“You think that matters?” Mustafa laughs bitterly. “It’s not even as though I’m anything like religious. In fact I’ll admit to you that I don’t believe Allah even exists. Yet I’m guilty of what some jihadi in Somalia or Nigeria does? What the hell?”
“So what can you do about it?” Yasmin tries to make her voice as reasonable as she can. “There’s nothing that we can do about it, is there?”
“Isn’t there?” Mustafa suddenly turns to look at her. His eyes are hot and burning in his pale face. “I ask you, if someone treats you like a murderer and terrorist, no matter what you do...why wouldn’t you turn into one?”
“Mustafa. Please. Don’t do anything rash, I beg you.”
“Oh, I’m not going to do anything rash.” He gets up from the bench, picks up his bag of books. “Whatever I do, I promise you that it won’t be rash. It’ll be very well thought out.”
“Mustafa,” she says, despairing.
He walks away a few steps, and looks back over his shoulder. “Yasmin?”
She gets up, too. “Yes?”
He looks at her a long moment, and opens his arms. “A hug?”
She runs to him and holds him as tight as she can, and the tears come, the tears won’t stop coming, no matter how much she tries.
“Stay with me,” she whispers into his chest, when she can speak. “Stay with me.”
Before he opens his mouth, she already knows what the answer will be.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015