Chapter 4 : Amirah
I wasn’t supposed to be at the basketball courts. Zayd was playing with his guy friends and that generally meant that the court was off-limits.
‘I don’t want you coming around the brothers, sis,’ he’d always say. I would roll my eyes every time. Not like there was anything there I hadn’t seen before.
‘Nah, it’s just that I know how guys’ minds work, OK? Trust me, it’s better you stay away.’
Then he’d keep going on in that earnest way of his about the Islamic rules on modesty – ghayrah and hijab, niqab, lowering the gaze etc. I’d usually tuned him out by that point. I got it. He didn’t want his friends eyeing up his sister. I could respect that.
But that day was different. After I dropped the kids at the mosque, Mum started ringing my phone, asking where Zayd was. Apparently, he had promised to take the kids to the park after madrasah while she went to her appointment at the doctor’s, and she was still waiting to hear back from him. I shook my head. Zayd may have been the world’s most dutiful son, but he had a terrible memory.
Anyway, that Saturday morning, I knew that he had his regular basketball practice so I decided to go over and tell him to call Mum before going off to do some sketching.
I recognised all the other players: I had seen most of them outside the masjid at one time or another.
I saw Usamah, the exchange student from the Bronx, studying fashion and design at Central Saint Martins, a cross between a ‘loud ‘n’ proud’ New Yorker and a twenty-first century Ibn Batutta. And he scored a very respectable eight in our totally naughty but hilarious Muslim hottie chart: the ‘Mottie Scale’.
Then there was Mr Smooth, Mahmoud. I only knew him because we’d been at primary school together but I never gave him much more than a nod and quick salam in recognition of the fact that he had once pushed someone over for bullying me in the playground. Other than that, I stayed away. Some guys are just too dangerous. You can’t let them get too close because they don’t know how to be ‘just friends’. Mahmoud 21 and guys like him were officially excluded from the Mottie rankings. We girls know better than to play with fire.
But then I noticed that there was someone else on the court, someone I hadn’t seen before. He was playing some serious ball, making everyone gasp and pant to catch up with him. He seemed to be aiming for some sort of record, slamming the ball into the net again and again. There was something about the way he moved – strong, graceful, rippling, like a cat – that made something flutter in my stomach.
What a gorgeous specimen, I thought. From a purely artistic point of view, of course.
For a split second, I imagined myself framing the contours of his arms the colour of caramel, the biceps flowing into the sinewy forearm, the powerful hands with the perfect nails. Charcoal, for sure. That was the best way to capture the glow of his skin and play of shadow and light that highlighted the muscles.
But those thoughts only flashed through my mind for a second.
What was I doing there again? Then I remembered: I was here for Zayd. But he hadn’t seen me yet, he was so intent on trying to block the guy with the ball. I would have to interrupt.
‘Zayd!’ I called out, my voice perfectly controlled to sound mature and businesslike: my ‘brothers voice’.
All four of them turned towards me and, for a brief moment, the stranger’s eyes met mine. They were the lightest eyes I had ever seen on a mixed-race boy, light and clear. Trusting. As soon as our eyes met, he smiled, almost before he could catch himself, and dropped the ball. It was as if his smile had eclipsed the sun; I wasn’t aware of anything else, just shadows that made him shine even brighter. My heart flipped a couple of times and my mouth went dry.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mahmoud running up to grab the ball. But it was as if the stranger couldn’t hear him – either that or he didn’t care.
A moment later, he had lowered his gaze, the ball was out of his control and Zayd was running towards me, his face red, his hair plastered to his forehead.
‘What are you doing here, Amirah?’ he frowned, guiding me away from the court. I heard the ball slam into the net on the other side of the court. Seemed Mahmoud had interrupted Mr Light Eyes’ flow.
‘Well, as-salamu ‘alaykum to you too, brother,’ I smiled, only mildly irritated by his protectiveness.
He mumbled a greeting as he approached.
‘Your mother has been trying to reach you,’ I said as he fumbled around for his phone in his bag. ‘Something about a doctor’s appointment?’
Zayd groaned. ‘Subhanallah, I completely forgot!’ he cried, slapping his forehead.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘you’d better get your backside over to number 6 Seville Close quick time before the Wrath of Mum descends on you.’
Zayd turned to his friends, ‘Yo, ikhwan, I’m out. Got to take care of some family stuff.’ He looked over at the sharp shooter and smiled. ‘Great play, Ali, mashallah…’ So, his name was Ali. Another piece of information to add to the fact that he was quite possibly the most gorgeous guy I had ever laid eyes on.
But I had to stop that train of thought before it got out of hand because, for a start, the only reason a strictly practising Muslim girl like me would have anything remotely emotional to do with a boy is if she were ready to get married.
And I was never getting married, ever.
Chapter 5: Ali
‘You did good, man, mashallah,’ Usamah smiled over at me as we cooled off after the game. Mahmoud was already gone, off to meet one of the girls who had stopped by earlier, no doubt. Usamah rubbed his towel over his bald head and sat down to drink some water from his bottle.
‘You didn’t play too badly yourself,’ I said, leaning back onto the bleachers and looking over at him. ‘But you know I could have got 50, don’t you…’
‘Uh-huh,’ Usamah took another swig from the bottle. ‘If you hadn’t gone and gotten distracted, you might have.’
I coughed and let out a little laugh, embarrassed. But Usamah just shrugged his shoulders and looked out over the court, smiling. I glanced behind me and thought to myself, This is the spot, right here. This is where she was standing…
We got up to go and Usamah turned to me. ‘You hungry? There’s a great West Indian place around the corner. And I could show you around your new hood.’
And he did. He showed me the station tucked away under the bridge, which bus to take into Brixton, which one to take down to Croydon. He took me to try the best halal Jamaican patties in South London, and told me which stalls in the market sold the best incense and perfume oils.
And as we walked and ate and rode the bus, we talked.
‘So why did y’all move from out in the country to the big, bad city?’
I took a deep breath. I hated this bit: explaining why we had left Hertfordshire. Usamah noticed my hesitation and put a hand out towards me.
‘I don’t want you to think I’m nosey or nothin’, it’s just that I’ve got a habit of asking questions about everything. So any time you feel you want me to shut up and stop asking you about your life story, you go right ahead and say it, OK?’
‘OK,’ I laughed, thinking how unusual this Usamah guy was. ‘It’s not a problem. You remind me of one of my school friends, Pablo. He was like that, always asking questions, wanting to get to the bottom of things.’
‘Good at getting those ‘Oprah moments’, huh?’
‘Yeah, you could say that…’ An image of Pablo flashed across my mind: it was the last day of school, the day after we had finished our exams. We were both dressed in our school uniform, and I was telling him that I wouldn’t be coming to the end-of-year dance. The look on his face – incredulity, incomprehension, disappointment – only made my words seem harsher than I intended. I didn’t trust myself not to buckle, not to allow him to sweet talk me into fulfilling our pact, as he always did. So I got it out and over with, as quickly as I could, and walked away.
That was the last time I had seen him.
I had decided that I couldn’t trust myself around him. His lifestyle was too tempting, and my fledgling Islamic identity was too weak to withstand the attraction. Or so I had thought at the time.
Now, with his face vivid in my mind, I wondered whether I had been too harsh on him – and too doubtful of my own strength of character.
Usamah’s voice snapped me back to the present. ‘So, is that why you don’t sound like most of the brothers I’ve met from London?’
I laughed, embarrassed. ‘You mean my accent?’ He nodded, smiling.
‘Well, I went to a public school – what you Americans call private school – so my accent is a little different. You’re from New York, right?’
‘That’s right, the Bronx, baby.’
‘So what are you doing in London?’
‘Well, I always wanted to travel, to see Europe and all that jazz. And I thought studying abroad would be a way to do that – don’t ask me how I ended up living in South London studying fashion, though, that was just fate, the qadr of Allah!’
‘Seriously, bro – fashion?’
He laughed again. ‘Yeah, I’m that straight guy with the queer eye, I guess. I just always loved clothes: drawing them, making them, y’know. My sisters loved me ‘coz their Barbies were the best dressed in town!’
An image of a child-sized version of Usamah fitting clothes on a Barbie popped into my head and I spluttered.
‘OK, maybe I’m missing something here. I mean, I don’t mean to judge or anything, but how does the fashion industry fit in with your beliefs?’
Usamah sighed and scratched his head. ‘I’m trying to make it work, akh. But I can’t deny the gifts God gave me. I can’t pretend I don’t love what I do. So I’ve got to halalify, y’know? I design clothes for young Muslims – or anyone into funky, individual style with a modest edge. And I sell them from my website. As for the other stuff, the shows, the models and all that, I’m trying to find a way around it all.’
I felt really relaxed around Usamah. He didn’t have his guard up like so many other young men, and he wasn’t afraid to be himself, to be an individual. Me, I tended to want to blend in, picking up slang and ways of being that were alien to me, simply to fit in with the group: first, the English boys at school and, now, it seemed, the Muslim boys in South London. Usamah, on the other hand, was quite confident in his identity: his roots, his accent, his quirky dress sense and interest in fashion and spirituality. He wore it all with pride. I admired that.
‘So, what about you, akh? What do you love to do? What can you not live without?’
My mind flicked through various possible answers: rugby, PlayStation, studying, basketball, but none of them felt right. I felt so far away from them all now. Six months ago, my response would have been immediate, 100 per cent sure. But now…
‘I don’t know, bro. I guess I’m trying to figure myself out, too. I’ve only been on the deen for the past eight months so a lot of it is still new to me. And I’ve had to leave a lot of stuff behind…’ Pablo. The band. Amy.
‘Ahh, the baggage of jahiliyyah, huh? All that haram stuff we used to do? That’s a hard one. But don’t worry, bro, you’ll get there. You’ll find your niche, that place where you belong, inshallah.’
So, as we walked up the high street toward the bus stop, I plucked up the courage to mention what had been dancing around in the back of my mind since our basketball game.
‘You know that girl who came to the court during the game, the one with the nose ring and black hijab?’
Usamah gave me a look. ‘You mean Zayd’s sister? Man, I try my best not to know who she is! Zayd don’t take to that kinda thing, y’know. He gets kinda defensive – angry – any time anybody mentions his sister… why, you know her?’
‘Of course not, I don’t know anybody! I’m the new kid on the block, remember?’
‘Well, if I were you, I would just look the other way. That’s Zayd’s sister. She is off-limits, man, totally off-limits.’
So, I had my answer. Now I could finally stop thinking about her.
The girl in the red trainers.
Na’ima B. Robert moonlights as an author of books for children and young people. She Wore Red Trainers is her fifth Young Adult novel and her first for Kube Publishers.