The calls always came just around midnight. We were all asleep so the story was told only from my parents’ memory. A man in a deep, husky voice called several times throughout the night and my father had to get up and answer it each time, since the ringing from the old rotary phone was maddening. The man on the telephone started to first just scare them and told them about how dark men were going to come into their apartment and rob them at any time of the night and that this was not a safe neighborhood to live in for good Muslims like them. That they should move out of the apartment immediately. Then the man on the telephone said that these dark men were going to break through the doors and set their apartment on fire. “Who is this!” my father yelled through the phone, hair disheveled, half awake in his white cotton undershirt, ready to pull the phone out of the wall.
Sometimes the calls came on the weekdays and sometimes on the weekend but always around midnight. My mother would get up and stand next to my father when the calls came, keeping a watchful eye over our bedroom where all three of us slept. Eventually my father figured out from the voice that this man must be a desi just like himself and switched to Urdu after a dozen threats. And when he spoke in Urdu, the man on the telephone paused for a bit but continued tapping those t sounds with that British English accent, refusing to acknowledge that they were tied to some Muslim brotherhood. My father nonetheless started cursing back in Urdu like a 1970s movie villain, sisterfucker and motherfucker, and threatened to find this man on the telephone and beat him senseless with his shoes.
My mother, my two siblings and I had moved into that second-floor corner apartment when we arrived from Hyderabad, India in 1975. My father had been living in Chicago for a few years and came with his younger brother, both engineers. The apartment at Lawrence and Kedzie was a step up from the deplorable bachelor pad on Devon Avenue in which seven to eight Hyderabadi men all lived together before their wives received green cards. My father and uncle had both left India during the recession and trekked first to Tehran where engineers were needed and the Shah’s money flowed. Once talk of revolution hit the streets, the young Indian men came back home and looked for another way out of poverty.
My father picked this apartment because it was near the Jewish kosher markets where we could get halal meat. The building owner was an old Yugoslavian man who brought over beaten up furniture before we arrived; a few gray threaded sofas, a wooden table with a loose leg, four mismatched chairs and a chest of drawers. No armoires. No charpoys. Everybody in the building was an immigrant, fleeing all kinds of horrors back home from the Koreans to the Slavs to the Muslims. None of us knew English and spoke in that lingua franca English of untethered migrants. All our mothers congregated in the courtyard and watched over each other’s children while hanging wash on the lines and ironing clothes on the cement back porch near the laundry room. But the Muslim mothers kept to themselves and only smiled at the Koreans and Slavs. The children played without boundaries in the alleyways and carried on conversations from Hibbard Elementary down the street.
Every morning before school, even when there was a blizzard covering the streets of Chicago with knee-deep snow, our mothers gathered in front of the building to walk the children over, clad in summer saris over rubber boots, knitted sweaters poking out of their mid-riff winter coats, and cotton dupattas wrapped around their heads so the cold air did not seep into their ears. To protect their children’s ears was even more sacrosanct and all of us looked like criminals walking down the street in windproof ski masks that left our faces wet with sweat. Most of us were pulled out during the day for ESL services and there were enough of us to also have an Urdu teacher who talked to us like our mother and asked about our day and what we still did not know and understand in English.
Sadiya Haq was my best friend in Mrs. Huntley’s first grade classroom; she lived in the same building as me and she was pulled out for both ESL and Urdu. Her family was from Pakistan but only a generation ago they had migrated there from Hyderabad, India after the partition that split the subcontinent into three separate countries. Sadiya had long thick dark brown hair and the fair skin that all our mothers coveted for their own daughters. The light hazel eyes were from her mother, who had worked in a factory in Pakistan so she could pay for all her sisters’ education.
We had never met a Muslim woman who had worked outside of the house. So my own mother was quite curious about Mrs. Haq because she often thought about how her own life would have been different if only my grandfather had allowed his six daughters to work instead of being pushed into arranged marriages to men in faraway places. Here in our building was a Muslim woman who had walked to the garment factory by herself in a sari and not a burka, made her own tiffin lunch, and smoked cigarettes on her break. None of the other women believed her until Mrs. Haq took out the tattered black-and-white photos of herself sitting under a banyan tree with a puff of smoke circling about her own beautiful mane of brown, braided hair.
Sadiya looked just like her mother and had that same bravado that I did not possess. I was the introvert to her extrovert, the id to her ego. Sadiya walked with confidence in the shalwar kameez outfits that her mother sewed on the Singer machine that we could hear constantly buzzing from down the hallway. I coiled myself into a shell whenever my mother would make me wear the gaudy sequin outfits she had sewn, clashing against my gray gym shoes. Sadiya had learned to double jump before the rest of us and could sing Queen Bee while she jumped. She knew how to chase boys on the playground without our mothers ever knowing. She raised her hand in class all the time while the rest of us pressed our hands under our thighs, looking at our feet when the teacher asked a question. Sadiya was also the first one to bring sandwiches to lunch while the rest of us suffered through lamb meat dolloped inside wheat parathas that had been sitting in our metal lockers since 8 AM. Sadiya was the All American Pakistani girl that we Muslim Indians dreamt of being.
The closer I came to Sadiya the more her mother wanted Sadiya to stay away from me. At first, I thought Mrs. Haq does not like any one of us children since Sadiya was an only child and one was enough for her. But every time I came closer to Sadiya I saw Mrs. Haq whisper something into her ear and Sadiya standing there for a minute before coming over to play with me, her mother’s cold hazel eyes staring back at my black eyes, greasy hair and dark skin. Once I told my mother about how Mrs. Haq does not like me, but my mother just thought it was all in my head and recommended that I bring a bag of candy to entice Sadiya to play with me, since after all, she was so beautiful and all the children wanted to play with her.
But there was something about Mrs. Haq that I never told anyone. It was my 7th birthday and my mother invited all the Muslim families over to our apartment. My mother and her sisters baked pans of lamb biryani, fried beef samosas in a deep vat of peanut oil, sliced and cubed onions and cilantro for the yogurt relish, and soaked cooked rice into pots of creamy, sugared milk for the kheer. There was enough food for everyone and the Pakistani women commented on how delicious the meal was even though it was not from their own country where raisins would have been thrown into everything.
The families brought in small wrapped gifts for me, and then my father placed the gifts in their bedroom and closed the door after the last guests had arrived. Just when I was about to blow out the candles on my birthday cake…my mother announced that her water had broke and she needed to go to the hospital to deliver our next and last sibling, the only American born one, Faisal, my Gemini twin. In the midst of chaos, the families decided that they would leave quickly so there was some peace for quick decisions, but it was Mrs. Haq who said that she would stay behind and watch the children until my father came back from the hospital. I was overjoyed at first knowing that Sadiya and I would get to play with my new toys and have time to jump on the bed in the bedroom, even though I shared it with my younger sister.
“Sadiya, let’s open up my presents and play in my room!” I shouted.
“Oh no, no, “said Mrs. Haq. “I will keep them in a safe space in our apartment so that none of them gets broken. You can open them when your mother comes back from the hospital. She will enjoy you opening them very much.”
I watched Mrs. Haq walk into my parents’ bedroom, scanning the walls and trying to measure the worth of the room with her eyes, the gifts bundled tightly under her arms. When she left the front door slightly ajar, she looked back at me with those eyes of hers. I don’t remember when she came back into the apartment. My brother, sister, Sadiya and I played hide and seek in the apartment until it got very dark outside and we finally retreated into our bedroom to play board games, falling asleep on the floor. For dinner, we ate the rest of the birthday cake and avoided the biryani and no one cared. Mrs. Haq watched television the whole time and only took breaks to smoke cigarettes on the back porch.
In the morning, we woke to the smell of my father, the formidable bachelor, trying to cook eggs on the skittle while wearing the same suit from last night.
“Come in for breakfast Sattar, Rubina and Samina,” shouted my father. “Your mother had a baby boy last night. Faisal. And he will join us soon.” We were so excited and kept asking my father all sorts of questions. What did he look like? How fat was he? Did he cry the whole night? With a look of exhaustion, my father asked us to eat quietly and get ready to go to the hospital to see for ourselves. In the corner of the living room, getting ready to leave, I saw the stack of gifts from my birthday party, only a smaller pile, with some missing. I did not think about Mrs. Haq again for quite some time.
Soon after we brought Faisal home from the hospital, my father decided it was time for us to move out of the city and into my uncle’s townhouse in the suburbs. Maybe my paternal grandmother would come join us and help take care of the children he said. And she did but only for a few months. We left the city and came back on Saturdays to shop on Devon Avenue for all the groceries we needed for the week. We had lost touch with the Muslim families in that apartment building and only saw them occasionally when we went into the city to pray during Eid at McCormick Center, along with thousands of others.
Eventually all of us went onto colleges in the Midwest and then spread out in radial fashion to various parts of the country: my older brother Sattar went to medical school in New York; my younger sister Rubina ended up a lawyer in Beverly Hills; my younger brother Faisal was a social worker in Boston and I ended up in Houston as a middle school teacher. When I came home for one Labor Day Weekend, my mother and I decided to go to the Islamic Foundation’s annual convention in the far suburbs and shop for clothes and jewelry; there was a giant open market with stalls from all over the world. At one of the stalls, a dark-skinned, stocky man kept staring at my mother from a few feet away and would not look away. I nudged my mother about the man, but she said that she did not recognize him as anyone she knew. But it was now too late and the man was putting his taqiyah on his head while walking over to us. We said our salaams and he began with an apology.
“You do not know who I am but I know who you are,” he said. At this point, my mom’s ears began searching for his voice and trying to remember where she had heard it before. “I am embarrassed to say this but…almost twenty years ago I used to call your apartment in Chicago and leave threatening messages.” We were both stunned and my mother could not remember when the calls stopped but now she remembered his voice. The apartment. The late night calls. Their naiveté as recent arrivals. “My name is Maqbool,” he continued, “and I am the nephew of Mrs. Haq. Do you remember her? She lived down the hallway from you in that building on Kedzie. Well…my aunt really wanted me to move into that apartment of yours so I could be near her and Sadiya. To help out. But she knew that you would not leave since you were pregnant at that time. So she had me make those calls…to scare you…so you could leave the apartment. I feel really bad about it now but I was just fifteen at that time and I had just come from Pakistan. So I did what my aunt asked me to do. You know how she was.” Then he chuckled. Neither one of us spoke. We just stared at this man for a few minutes and then walked away. It was the last time I would think
about Mrs. Haq and the way she stared at me with those hazel eyes of hers. The same hazel eyes that Sadiya possessed and the eyes I no longer coveted.
Samina Hadi-Tabassum is a professor at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. Her first book of poems, Muslim Melancholia (2017), was published by Red Mountain Press. She has published poems in Clockhouse, Souvenir, and Main Street Rag, among others.2