Going home feels like going to war. It's like how Zeinab imagines war to be at sixteen, anyway. She is sheltered, wealthy and American, and even her Moroccan parents know nothing of strife. She has never seen places like Algeria or Lebanon and she knows she doesn't want to. But still, the bottom of her stomach hardens into slate as her brother's car pulls into their driveway. Because she slipped out this morning for school as her parents rested between the dawn and morning prayers, without saying goodbye. Because she'd gone without hijaab, because a schoolmate had stabbed through the skin of her ear with a hijaab pin the week before. Now her ear was healed, but she was not.
"Umme is going to kill you," Hasan said when he saw her later that day. "She's going to kill you, Zee!" He almost laughed at her. He stood with his friends, all seniors, and one of them eyed her like he was seeing her for the first time.
"That's not your problem," Zeinab said quietly, but she screamed it in her head. You goddamned boy!
No one is waiting for them as Hasan leads the way into the house. Zeinab is relieved; she was sure that her mother had sniffed out her loose hair and would be ready to pounce. But instead the smells of cooking are coming from the kitchen, and her mother's back is turned.
Nothing happens. For Zeinab's mother never wears the hijaab inside the house, and neither does her daughter. And nothing ever happens. Zeinab quietly drifts from the hijaab and back to it again as school begins and ends, and her mother never says a word, even in public. To Zeinab, this feels like war.
September eleventh comes and goes, and comes and goes, and comes and goes, and Zeinab is a sophomore at UCLA. She is a Muslimah: fashionable, comfortable, hidden. She reads French magazines and listens to rap. She piles her hair on top of her head to give her hijaab volume and wears long, thick scarves like manes. The halo of fabric lends her its ferocity, and no one ever bothers her. Her friends are black and brown.
Her adviser points out in her fourth semester that she needs to declare a major. She has to fulfill the requirements handed down to her. She has to decide what she'll do with her life. Her brother is pre-med. He goes about his studies full of shame leading to rage. He wants to prove that Arabs aren't worthless, that Morocco has not sinned. He wants to stop talking about religion with every white person he meets, so he shouts about medicine and wants to cut people open. It works for him. Their parents are proud.
Zeinab has a gale inside of her kicking dust off dormant indignation, but faced with the decision her adviser places in front of her she cannot synthesize it. She freezes, and no matter how many layers she wears she cannot thaw. Over winter break, she seeks her father's counsel at the dinner table. He is a businessman, and they are close. She once thought she would succeed him in shipping.
He looks up at Hasan. Why not me? Zeinab thinks. Flames leap in her throat but she swallows them down. "I was thinking pre-law for you," her father says. Her mother nods happily.
Zeinab understands, and she spits out an ember: "I have to be a good Muslim, is that it?" It starts a shouting match between all four of them. In her parents she senses terror, rising from them like onion fumes. Their eyes are bugged and her mother is pulling on her hair, almost cradling her head. Zeinab wants to leap up and let the night enfold her. She wants to disappear. She knows now that she is a burden, a smudge at the corner of everyone's vision. She has to put on a display so that no one can ever mistake her for a terrorist. Even her brother, she thinks with disgust, will be nothing more than a servant fixing their broken heads. He'll be excellent. "For a Muslim."
Zeinab picks pre-law as her major. She's heard her parents fretting uncontrollably in their bedroom at night and wants to ease both her guilt and their fears. But she can't help what follows: she despises her classes with every fiber of her being and in her hatred soon begins to fail. Before her parents can discover this, she quietly drops out of school. They won't know until they realize they are missing a bill next semester. By then, she hopes that she will have found some kind of direction and with it a job.
She spends her newfound free time exploring Los Angeles. Hollywood fascinates her. It seems to be the pinnacle of the American dream, glamorous and warm. Her hijaab attracts the attention of famous actors. One of them approaches her while she is examining Mickey Mouse's star. He apologizes to her for Islamophobia, as if he is or as been guilty of the condition. Instead of feeling grateful, as she knows she should, she recoils. Mickey Mouse is suddenly and inexplicably dead to her, and Muslims have no place. The world has expected her to apologize for being Muslim. Yet the world also wants to apologize. Finally, the world wants her to accept its apology for its brutality. It is obsessed with its own ego. And her hijaab, she thinks, is a reminder of that ego. Her fury burns so hot it gives her acid reflux. That night she scratches herself pulling off her hijaab. She throws all her pins, volumizers, and stays into the trash, never to use them again. In her head, she renounces Islam, screams it inside, but it never leaves her lips. Her heart breaks and a ravine in her soul begins to open.
She must find a job before her father finds out she is contributing nothing to his household. There's no one else she can live with in case things turn sour at home. No boyfriend; though her mother is liberal in this regard Zeinab is between loves at this time. No girlfriend; Zeinab was interested in one older woman once, but the feeling was never mutual, nor was it an appropriate relationship to pursue. No one with whom she can stay with until she gets her feet under her to contribute. At the end of the day, it still comes down to contributions. She is too proud to sneak about. Go her way quietly, privately, and alone, yes. Dishonorably? Never. (How she will eat this thought one day.)
She sees responsibility like an endless rain. Each new one---money, family, pride---washes her clean, then soaks and chills her. Lichen begins to grow over a stony heart. She lies awake at night, struggling to stay warm.
And then, as though it is so simple, she realizes what she wants to do. Law enforcement should be more diverse, she reads in a Times editorial. And why not me? she thinks.
So she enrolls at the police academy with some of her savings. And from then on she wears the uniform of a different kind of brotherhood. Though her parents are less than thrilled, her mother even appalled that Zeinab's job mixes her so freely with men, they cannot help but be overjoyed at the sight of their daughter's long-dormant smile. Zeinab, for her part, revels in her newfound status. Before, she was feared. Now, she doesn't quite know what she is, and the uncertainty is reassuring.