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by Rutgers University Muslim Students Association

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Left & Right

Leila does things, and then she writes about them. A series of vignettes based on a Muslimah’s adventures and misadventures at Rutgers, as she tries to figure out her life, her major, and when exactly she should take the F bus if she wants to get to class on time.

The

Rainclouds shuffle in like soldiers, big, heavy, looming; heavy with burden and held aloft only by God. Their names are Stress, Anxiety, and Laziness; their drizzles are brief moments of panic as due dates draw near; and their thunder and lightning are the text messages and phone alarms that jar Leila awake when she dozes off.

It’s midnight when she shoots awake at her desk and finds that she drooled all over her readingwhich, yes, extremely graceful, she is most definitely the beauty of the nightand it’s midnight when Leila rubs at her eyes and sits up on her chair and blinks at her laptop screen. Oh, good. Apparently she got the date and her name down before she conked out.

The rain batters down against her window. She kind of wishes the electricity will go out, if only for an excuse to not work on her assignments for a minute longer. Better check if there’s a flood warning, just in case…

Nope.

Siiiigh.

It’s the last Thursday of classes, and Leila has a to-do list. It’s long, and the things on it even longer, but Leila, of course, didn’t have the tenacity to plan ahead. So now she’s sitting on:

  • one (1) 15-page research paper
  • two (2) 5-page papers, 1.25 margins, single spaced
  • one (1) group project for presentation on a monday morning, and her group members haven’t responded to her emails, which is fun
  • three (3) finals, two of which are at 8 A.M.
  • and about twenty (20) hours of sleep that she has to catch up on, because that marathon of Community was totally worth it

And, well, you know, now she gets to pay the price, ’cause there’re more than two cups of expensive coffee in her trash and a whole assortment of books and sources spread out on her desk, skimmed, printed, highlighted, and ready to be Chicago Styled… as soon as she, you know, actually gets to writing about them.

Okay. Focus. It’s not that hard, she just has to get in the mood and crank something out. Closing that tab of Twitter she left open is probably a good start.

Leila reads what she has so far, and, hey it looks pretty good. She’s farther off than she expected, actually, maybe she can take a break

Oh, God, when did it become 1:32AM?

Here’s to the final stretch, Insha’Allah.

A Universal Truth

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any student in attendance of an MSA event, must be in want of a spouse.

Or. So her mom tells her.

When Leila first gets her acceptance letter to Rutgers, her aunts are ecstatic. They don’t ask her about her major or her career aspirations or her school, don’t ask about if she’s dorming or commuting and whether by car or by bus; the first thing her aunts ask, with the grin of the Chesire Cat, is: “You’re joining the MSA, right? Pakistani Student Association? Indian Student Association?”

“I don’t think the Indian Student Association is a thing,” says Leila. Not by that name, at least…

“Well,” says one of the ladies, nodding thoughtfully to the other one, “you’re better off with someone from Pakistan anyway.”

“That’s… a little racist,” says Leila, doing her best to appear uninterested, and apparently failing.

Her aunts are wide-eyed behind their glasses at Leila’s remark, and they lean in close, inspecting her. “Are you planning,” they start, and then turn to each other before fixing her with a shaky look, “to marry a—a—”

I was planning on marrying my laptop, thinks Leila, but doesn’t say it. She doesn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. She’s signing up for a NetID, not an account on MuslimMatrimony, and, uh, do people seriously think this way? She was thinking about joining MSA before, but it’s starting to sound less like a Muslim Student Association and more like a Marriage Student Association, which… yeah, she’s eighteen. So not interested. She just wants some friends.

“Leila, darling,” one of them assures her with a firm hand on Leila’s shoulder, “this is the time to act. When my daughter was in college, she made sure to join all of the good associations on day one, and look at her now. Masha’Allah, a handsome husband and a daughter and two sons…”

And that turns Leila off so much that when she does get to Rutgers, she doesn’t join a single club or make a single friend the entirety of her first semester, so she’s safe from the weirdo meet-and-greet the MSA sounds like from all the testimonials… but, y’know? It’s also kind of lonely.

(She gives up, eventually; can’t hold out any longer, so she goes to the meetings and grits her teeth, but then she loosens them and smiles because hey, weren’t you in my class last semester? great to see you again!, and so what if her aunties think she’s out to fish for a “halal boyfriend”? What she wants is a good group of friends—and she gets them).

(And God is great).

Below Freezing

Leila doesn’t do her homework on Sunday night.

Rather she peeks out the window and squints at the street lamps, where tiny snowflakes are floating to the earth in the dim, amber light. No school, she thinks, biting her lip, please, no school, because she doesn’t really want a snow day, but she doesn’t want to make the trek to Scott Hall and back from the parking deck in ten degree weather, either, and, staring wearily at her thirty page reading on the psychoanalytic approach to analyzing fairy tales, well—you know.

So she watches out the window. Turns back to the article and reads a paragraph, then tosses it aside and pulls up Twitter for a few seconds or minutes or hours instead. Stares out the window again, and the snow isn’t sticking, so the elementary schools and the government are in a state of emergency for naught, and she should probably do her homework.

But she doesn’t waaaant to. It’s too cold to think. It’s too cold to exist. Isn’t March supposed to put an end to cold fronts?

Leila brings the portable heater closer toward her and reaches for her reading again. What ensues is a staring contest with Bettleheim and Freud and a re-count of how many pages there are to go, and then a second competition with the window. A third with the clock on her wall, ticking away the midnight hour and her igniting her apathy.

Yeah, okay.

Leila shivers and yawns and shuffles her things aside, pulling the blanket up to call it a night. There’s still a chance for those 4-8 inches of snow, right? Winter Storm Titan could live up to its name and catch her and campus services by surprise, and maybe she’ll wake up for prayer and do her shivering wudu and find out that instead of having to get ready for her 9 A.M. class she gets to sleep in a few extra hours.

Please, AllahLet Titan do its thing.

So laziness wins and she sleeps.

(Titan doesn’t do its thing, and school doesn’t close, so she has to skim the article before class, and she has to walk to Scott Hall and back at 9 A.M. in 10 degree weather, and, well. Probably deserved that one.)

Love

You know who can talk about Pokémon for five hours?

Leila can talk about Pokémon for five hours.

(She doesn’t, of course; but she could, if she really wanted to. Which she doesn’t.)

The semester begins, the snow blankets the East Coast (and blankets it, and blankets it, and blankets it again), and it is February. It is February, and it’s the month of red paper hearts and of cheap, discounted chocolate, but it is, of course, also the month of love; love for her sisters, love for her siblings, love for her parents, love for the African-Americans that are her modern day Ansarand most importantly, love for Ar-Rahman, Al-Ghaniyy, and Al-Wadud. On the fourteenth, she has not one, but seven dates: five of them are salaah, and she has to spit out the last two because her dad bought them unpitted.

Her last du’a of the day is simple: “Ignite in me a love for You as You love me.”

But that’s a part of her du’a every day; Aphrodite and Eros are a myth. The God of love is the God of everything else, too, 24/7/365.

(And God has more names than all the Pokémon combinedyeah, that includes Gen 6so five hours? Try five lifetimes, and then some).

Featured Image © Mohammad Alagha

Safe

Daylight Savings Time ends, and, wow, could she use a savior.

By now, Leila was pretty much settled into her school schedule; wake up at fajr and pray and read some Qur’an and crash for another hour; tumble out of bed and get dressed and do her hopefully-day-long-wudu; spread some cream cheese onto a bagel and wrap it up for later, to eat on campus around lunch time. When she got to campus, it was onto the daily classes, to the classrooms she forgot the room number of, ’cause now she found them by landmark. Get out by 1:00, head to the Student Center to pray, and then to the library to study for a bit. And on and on.

By her last afternoon class on College Avenue, Leila would have had her lunch and learned her vocabulary for Arabic, prayed asr and walked to her seat a few minutes late. Right after class, she’d pray maghrib before heading home in time for dinner, a nap, and the rest of the night.

Then comes November 3rd, the clock turns, and everything is all over the place.

On Sunday morning, her mom shakes her awake for fajr at a different time than her alarm, and she’s totally confused as to why before she remembers.

On Monday, she locks herself down in Alexander, away from the windows so there’s no being distracted by the trees or the rain or whatever it is that College Ave has to offer. By the time she emerges upstairs, it’s pitch black—she was expecting a painted sunset—and she nearly trips over herself in running to a prayer room, and God, please accept this, because when she bites her lip and looks up the time for sunset—well, she winces.

On Tuesday, Leila scrutinizes a time table with her classes and the prayer times on it, nods to herself and sets up a schedule so she won’t miss anything. She’ll have to leave in the middle of one of her electives for maghrib, but what’s more important, a minor inconvenience  she can explain to the professor before class starts, or the keys to Heaven?

So by Wednesday, she’s totally settled into the new flow of things, except that in the twenty minute squeeze that she was going to pray in between classes she didn’t expect the guys in the DCC’s prayer room to be all the way against the back wall. She bites her lip and wonders if she should wait for them to finish—but, no, checking her phone, she decides that’ll be cutting it too close, and she doesn’t want to rush through her appointment with God, and this time she can take out her on-the-go prayer rug and find herself a corner, like she did last year.

When she’s done, she has to make a run for Loree, and nearly bumps into someone when she yanks the classroom door open. A classmate looks at her weirdly when she settles in her chair, her breathing off. She quickly tucks some hair back into her hijabthen looks at the clock on the wall.

Just in time!

Awkward

It’s when she’s taking off her sock with one hand and trying to keep her balance in front of the sink with the other that the janitor walks in, and Leila tries not to wince by the appearance.

Instead she shoves her hand out to the automatic sink so it’ll dispense another handful of water. Doing wudu is never easy outside of her own home—even in masajid she’s not really sure what to do at the stalls—and it’s only made twice as awkward by her spectator, who she’s sure is eyeing the mess that Leila’s making on the floor. Leila is vehement in paying attention to her ablution and not to her audience, because, hey, it’s not like this is the first time she’s had to wipe her hands, her face, and her feet in public before, but it’s still distracting, she can still feel the janitor’s eyes on her back, and Leila was excited when she first came into the bathroom because there were two people in stalls and maybe if she went fast enough, she’d be done before they came out.

She’s not feeling all that lucky, though; she feels bad because she knows it must suck to have to clean up after those water-tossing Muslims, and it must be weird to see if you don’t know anything about ritual purity, but… that’s still no reason to stare!

She hears two flushes and two stall doors swing open, and she winces as she’s joined at the sinks with two people who are just washing their hands.

Don’t look at them. No eye contact, not even in the mirror. Focus. Each drop is a sin that’s being forgiven.

One wipe of her foot—water from the sink. Two wipes—more water. Three—sink.

She puts her right sock back on as the janitor gets a phone call, clicks her tongue, and leaves to answer it outside. The other two girls are finished by then, too, and as they leave, Leila catches the beginnings of the word, “Awwwwkwaaaaard…”

She’s only alone for the fraction of a second before the door swings a fourth time. Leila sighs and completes her wudu without regarding the stranger, but then she hears laughter. Leila looks up.

It’s a hijabi, grinning and shaking her head as she unpins her scarf and rolls up her sleeves, shoves her own hand in front of the dumb automatic sink that smells like Rutgers soap.

Leila starts laughing, too.

Solidarity.

Featured image found here

Heartbreak

Leila falls in love.

It happens inside a new place that opens on campus a few weeks into the semester; one of her friends tells her about it in high spirits and drags her there later that week. It’s small and hidden, so it’s hard to find the entrance from the outside, but the inside of the ice cream parlor is painted pleasing shades of blue and pink and has a sign that advertises over 60 flavors, from classics such as chocolate and vanilla and strawberry, to stranger ones like lobster or horseradish, and while Leila is confused or grossed out by most of the latter, she shrugs, mutters “to each their own,” and asks for two scoops of rainbow sherbert.

It’s overpriced, but she shows them her RUID and gets a 10% discount, if that counts for anything, and when they go find some seating outside in the crisp pre-autumn air, it happens.

Leila tastes a spoonful of her rainbow painted ice cream, and instantly falls in love. Because she’s had ice cream before, she’s had good ice cream before, and then there’s this ice cream.

She kind of wants to marry it.

…Which, um, might be a little dramatic of her to say, but seriously, how is something so good allowed? She does her best to make it last, because she already wants more but the price was way too steep to go back for seconds. Maybe if she plays with the spoon for ten minutes after her cup is empty, more ice cream will magically appear.

(Allah can do anything, right?)

Suffice to say, that doesn’t happen, just as her readings don’t ever read themselves and her scarves don’t stay ironed forever, which is all very disappointing, but Leila lives through it and even manages to hold off on going back to the parlor for the better part of two whole days after. It’s on Thursday that she asks one of her other friends whether they’ve heard of it, and when the answer is a curious shake of Sarah’s head, Leila grins.

“You’ll love it!” she exclaims, and tells Sarah about the tons of flavors and toppings and how the seating is nice, too, which sort of makes up for the price and she’ll love it, she definitely will, and Leila is going so fast that Sarah frowns.

“…I didn’t catch any of that.”

“Oh, sorry,” says Leila, feeling sheepish. She slows down in speech and in pace, noticing that Sarah is lagging a little behind. “They just have a bunch of flavors that you wouldn’t think of. Some of them are really weird, though.”

“Like what?”

“Like foie gras.”

Sarah wrinkles her nose. “Who even gets stuff like that?”

“No idea,” replies Leila, and she’s about to ask, I wonder what they put in it, when she wonders: wait, what do they put in it? What do they put in anything, did she even bother checking the ingredients earlier, and, oh, man, her heart begins to sink. She can already see the cone she’s been planning in her head for the past twenty-four hours melting away in her hands.

“…No way,” she mutters, and hurriedly pulls out her phone, Googles the store right there in the street, two blocks away. Sarah tilts her head and watches her, asks what’s wrong, but by then Leila’s pulled up the shop’s website and its list of ingredients, and there, written in bold font, is everything that’s put in every flavor, and then what’s in the specialty, and…

“Who puts pork in ice cream?” Leila demands, and that’s how she gets her heart broken.

The Call

The first time she’s compelled to go to MSA is not the fondue party.

It’s not the fondue party, or the Eid banquet, or any of the other events they hosted all throughout her first two semesters. She goes to them, sure, because they sound like they’d be good for her and because her friends are going, and there’s free food and free motivation and good speakers, but there isn’t anything that really drives her to go to the meetings or the events outside of some half-hearted allegiance to the only club for which her parents will actually let her stay out late.

That, of course, changes.

It changes during Islam Awareness Week, when classes are over, right, so it’s time to head home and pray ‘asr with fresh wu’du and collapse in bed for a nap before dinner, but just as she’s heading toward the parking lot behind the RSC, her phone buzzes in her hand and she looks down to the fateful message—Bubble tea? :)—and who is she to say no to an offer as seductive as that?

She can already taste the boba in her mouth when she replies and they agree to meet on the corner of College Ave and Hamilton; when they head up to Easton and the tiny little shop hidden before NJ Books, she decides to try a new flavor, strawberry-kiwi instead of hiding behind the safety of mango, and after a bit of a struggle, Leila even agrees to let her friend—Saba—pay for her, the cherry on the top of what’s shaping up to be a pretty nice afternoon. Their drinks paid for and tasted and deemed thoroughly refreshing, Leila and Saba head outside, where it’s a blessedly nice April day after the coldest winter they’ve had to brave, and the two of them walk back to the RSC, together this time, chatting about whatever it is that’s going on in their lives—finals, term papers, that mutual friend of theirs’ that’s graduating this year; it’s pleasant, typical conversation that’s more-or-less come up every day for the past few weeks.

It’s during a break in their conversation, when both of them have stopped in front of ABP to sip at their tea, that Saba brings it up.

“So,” comes the question, “did you go yet?”, and she gestures with her shoulder to the steps across the street, where a poster advertising Islam Awareness Week hangs invitingly over Brower Commons.

Leila shakes her head. “No, I haven’t been over here all week.” Because, hey, she’s a commuter, and she’s not coming any earlier than she has to, and otherwise her breaks are spent in the library doing readings. “You?”

“No,” Saba admits. “I’ve been pretty busy.”

“Oh, right. Papers and stuff?”

“Mhm,” Saba says. She’s finished her drink by now, and drops it in the trash a few feet away from them before clicking the lock screen on her phone to check the time. “You know they’re doing prayer here?”

Leila didn’t. She glances in the direction of the parking lot.

“It’d be nice to pray in jamaat on campus…”

“Yeah,” says Leila, fiddling with the straw of her emptied cup. She doesn’t want to throw it out yet; maybe if she sucks at it some more, extra juice will magically appear. “But I don’t think I have wu’du, so I wanted to pray at home, ” and, um, yeah, sorry, but that’s kind of a deal breaker, no matter how awkward it is to refuse. She’s made ablution on campus before, of course, but if she goes home now she’ll definitely still have time to pray more comfortably…

“Oh, point,” says Saba, and to Leila’s relief she’s smiling. “But I do! So I think I’m going to check it out. See you tomorrow?”

“Insha’Allah,” agrees Leila, and they say their salaam, and Leila turns to head back home, shouldering her backpack, which somehow seems to have gotten lighter; she really does want to pray at home, you know, honestly feels like it’ll be better for her that way, but there’s something weird sitting in her stomach, anyway—did she just say ‘no’ to ‘come pray with us’—but, you know, whatever, it’s better for her to pray in private anyway, right, it’s, like, you know—

That’s when it changes.

It’s when she’s taking out her keys and making sure she has her wallet when it happens, when she hears it, hears the adhan—and, whoa, hey, when was the last time she heard the adhan like that, out in the street and over the microphone, an actual person proclaiming it in real time and beckoning forth everyone in the area to join the congregation, an actual call to prayer rather than alarm clock?

She turns back to Brower Commons and Saba’s retreating figure, feels the tug in her gut to stand in line with her sisters, under her breath repeats the words after the muadhin, and that is when she realizes—today, she is compelled to go to MSA.

How can she turn her back now, step into her car, turn on the radio, delay her prayer and drive all the way home, after she’d explicitly been called to worship here?

“Wait!” she shouts, rushing to Saba before she crosses the street. “Wait! I’m—I’ll be right back, watch my stuff?”

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