24 February 2011/21 Rabi’ul Awwal 1432
Dedication: To writing before I forget
It was my first time traveling by train from New York City to another state.
Penn Station was crowded, and I couldn’t figure out which gate I needed to go through in order to find my train. I asked the tall, well-dressed man standing beside me for help. He told me to watch the bulletin board for gate number announcements. In any case, we had the same destination so he told me I could just follow him.
I called my husband, “I’ll call you when I arrive. I’m okay.” Then I called my parents to tell them the same.
I didn’t want to follow a (handsome) stranger, but I also did not want to get lost. As everyone began moving, I kept my eye on him. He looked over a few times–perhaps to check on me. By the time I reached the train, I lost him but a station employee told me I was at the right place. “You’ll find coach seats straight ahead.”
I found an empty seat by a window, placed my carry-on above me and sat down only to see the same man sitting across the aisle. I smiled a bit embarrassed–inwardly saying, I wasn’t following you; I promise. The man quietly moved and sat in one of the many empty seats behind me.
I was grateful. I had work to do and lines to memorize.
I took out my dhikr beads.
A few moments later, another young man–this time carrying a guitar and large duffle bag–asked me if the seat next to me was taken. I said, “No,”–silently hoping he wouldn’t be talkative and also wondering why he didn’t see all the other empty seats.
I continued my dhikr, looking out the window, taking notice of the train emerging from under the ground into the dreary urban light.
He must have tried his best to hold his breath but 20 minutes into the ride, he burst out–Do you believe in God?
His accent told me he was Latino. He would later tell me he was from Nicaragua.
I said, “Yes.”
“Oh. Okay. Me, too!”
I finished my dhikr and then took out the stories in my folder, thinking, Dammit, he wants to have a God conversation.
He waited a few more moments.
“So what’s your religion?”
“I’m a Muslim. My religion is Islam.”
I was about to turn to the stories again, when he said,
“I love God. I’m just crazy. I would go anywhere or do anything to find him.”
But he couldn’t find God in religion. He tried. He tried Christianity. He tried Judaism. He tried Buddhism.
“I want to read about Islam.”
Shit. Now I have to give him book recommendations.
I looked up from my papers and turned my face toward him. “Do you have a paper and pen?”
He bashfully said he did not have a pen but handed me a slip of paper.
I wrote down a few books. I told him there are various translations of the Qur’an so I wrote down a couple. I also wrote he should look up Rumi. Then I handed the slip back to him.
I turned back to my stories.
…but I sensed, although he was trying his best to keep quiet, he was about to explode with questions.
So I said, “Would you like to read a story?”
“I love to read. I like to learn about everything and anything. If someone told me there was something great down a hole, I’d go in just to see for myself if it’s true.”
“Here’s a story about someone searching for God.” Like you.
I handed him “My Son’s Wedding Feast.”
Several minutes later, he asked, “So, her son died, huh?”
I said yes. He then told me he’s gone through a lot in his life. He said he never knew his parents. They abandoned him, he said. But he could never imagine losing his kids. In fact, he was on his way to visit his little daughter. “She’s my world.”
I then told him, I have a story about a daughter and her father. Would you like to read it?
I handed him “Knock at the Door.” He read it.
He then said, “The world is crazy. When I see something wrong, I just have to say something, you know? The world is crazy.”
I asked for his slip of paper and wrote down the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Then I handed it back to him.
“Sometimes, people think I look Arab. Did you hear about those Muslim pirates who attacked a ship full of Bibles?”
I figured he read a tabloid version regarding the Somali pirates.
“No, not really. Here’s another story.”
I handed him “Light on my Face.”
He paused in the middle–She’s MUSLIM?
Yes, of course.
“She got pregnant?!”
“But, but Muslim women…you follow the rules!”
Muslim women are human.
He continued reading. “Amir, huh?”
When he finished, his disposition changed. He laughed to himself. I now would say–bitterly.
“You know what we say? We say, Uno más del monton.”
I wrote it down. “Like this?”
“Yes. You know Spanish?”
A little. “What does it mean?”
“It means, Amir is one of many. Like me.”
Then he told me his story. He had two daughters. One from a woman with whom he fell in love, got engaged and almost married. “We separated, but I still took care of my girl.”
The second daughter was from a woman he didn’t love. “We were just seeing each other.” But she fell in love with him.
He said she tried to trap him by getting pregnant.
“I was so mad. I left her. But I thought, my parents did the same to me. I never knew my parents. Maybe that’s why they ran away, too? They were scared. I couldn’t do that to another child. So I decided I have to be a man. Take responsibility, you know?”
He was quiet after that. No more questions. His face became serious.
And the train stopped.