The winning entry for Young Muslim Writers Award 2018 - won by Sabir Miah from Jamiatul Ummah School.
The Worst Plan Ever
A waterfall cascaded down Aziza’s face as her shoulders shuddered. She propped herself up against the wall, back bent forward, knees tucked in, head in hands, without a care in the world if anyone in this corridor could see her. She wiped her eyes on her already soaked scarf, but the tears persevered.
Her fists clenched as her mind convulsed. Is this what Islam is about, she thought, searching deep within for some shred of Imaan she thought she had. A life of prejudice and bullying.
The insults echoed through her head, etched into her memory. Muslim freak. Extremist. Terrorist. Islam was about peace, but peace had long since gone. It left only pain and sorrow. Why did I have to be a Muslim? She banged her head against the wall. Why? It was either her scarf, her abaya, the fact she never wore a skirt, or that she prayed during lunch break, or about her prophet…it never – never! – ended…
Her body lurched as a fresh wave of sobs took over. They never understood her religion. They never bothered to look past the veil and see the true human inside. ‘Muslim freaks aren’t humans,’ they’d snarled.
‘Islam isn’t about killing and violence.’ She’d been getting so desperate lately. ‘It’s about peace and getting along with everyone.’ She begged them.
But they never saw past the veil!
The stupid – stupid! – veil of Isla—
Aziza suddenly stood up and tore the scarf off her head, wincing in pain as the pins holding it together dragged across her skin.
It was nothing compared to the pain of being a Muslim.
She threw it on the ground and stomped on it, her lips upturned in a plastic smile.
Taking a deep breath, she bent down and grabbed her abaya, fists trembling around a handful of the silky black material. She remembered going to the shop back in Egypt last summer. The nicest abaya in the world, she’d foolishly thought, wanting to impress her new class. She scoffed at how that turned out.
She pulled the abaya over her head, bunched it up in her fists and threw it on top of her scarf. She shivered despite wearing school uniform underneath. A frightening chill settled over her body.
Her conscience told her this was pointless. Who cares what Josh says about your religion? Who cares if Melissa thinks you’re ugly all because of your slightly darker skin? Who cares about the rumours? The barbs, jibes and insults? Who cares!?
No one cares. And that’s the problem. She’d tried getting the teachers’ attention, but they always turned a blind eye. No one stood up for her, instead standing to the side, taunting and egging everything on. They didn’t care about the victim left crying on the floor, trying to pick the pieces of her life back up only to be shattered again the next day.
Actually – well…there was – there was Emma. My only friend. But she knew Emma never truly cared. Emma only spoke with her to alleviate her guilty conscience. She hated her as well. She’s just as bad as the rest. Aziza’s heart crumbled at the truth. Emma didn’t care. No one ever cared!
With vigour, Aziza wrenched off her shoes and flung them on top of her abaya and scarf. She sighed in resignation. It would stop the bullying, she tried to rationalise. Other girls showed their legs, so… Reaching down, she pulled her leggings up to her knees, revealing her legs. She exhaled in triumph, not realising she was holding her breath. She felt euphoric. She felt amazing. She felt…ugly?
The cold air that wrapped around her legs felt like Shaytaan himself, but it was necessary. It would stop the bullying, she reassured herself.
Her ears perked up. Footsteps were approaching. Her heart froze like a shard of ice had pierced into it. Each footstep chimed in with every beat of her erratic heart. What did she care if they saw her like this? Everyone would find out anyway; she’d have to tell them.
The steps came closer, and closer, and closer, and clos—
Her heart stopped.
What if it’s a boy!
She desperately pulled down her leggings, tugging them over her ankles. She winced as they tore in the process. She grabbed her abaya and dragged it over her head, momentarily blinded, but a sudden gasp paralysed her body on the spot. The abaya dropped to the floor.
“Aziza! What are you doing!?”
Aziza could’ve cried with relief at the sound of Emma’s voice. Instead, hearing her name almost sent her into another wave of sobs. Aziza meant ‘victorious’. She felt like laughing; victorious? Who was she kidding? Winning against the bullies would be a victory, but she was losing. She wanted a way out. Any way out.
“Come on,” Emma said, her hand outstretched. “Up you get.” Aziza’s clammy hand gripped onto Emma’s and she stumbled to her feet. She swayed on the spot like a leaf in the wind. Her body felt like it’d been run over by a truck, and ached in places Aziza didn’t even know existed. Crying hurt; she knew that all too well.
Emma was staring closely at her. “Were you…crying, Azizi?”
Aziza quickly wiped her face free of tears. “No.”
“Yes, you have. Why? And why are your clothes on the floor?” Emma gave her a stern look, hands on hips.
Aziza took a deep breath and folded her arms. “It’s nothing.”
Emma gave her a glare. “It’s not nothing. It can’t always be nothing, can it?” Her eyes softened, “But you’ve never been like this. What’s wrong?”
The concern unnerved Aziza. “I don’t know…I think…it’s just—" Something inside her broke. “I can’t take it anymore!” She felt like crying all over again. “When is it all going to stop? Ya All—when’s enough enough?”
Emma laid a light hand on her shoulder. “Azizi, no one cares what they say. You’re better than all of them put together.”
No I’m not.
“It’s just…it’s just too much,” Aziza whispered into the space between them, her head a whirlwind of emotions.
“Trust me Azizi, I know.” No she didn’t.
How dare you—
Aziza suddenly shoved her hand away and took a step back. “You don’t know anything!” She shook with rage. Emma gaped at her. “You have no idea how it feels to be a Muslim, how it feels to be put down, how it feels to be insulted…every…single…day, all because of my religion.” Aziza was breathing heavily. “So no…you don’t know…and don’t—don’t pretend like you do.”
Emma held her palms up defensively, “Okay okay,” she said, “I don’t know what you’re going through. But lying to Miss Davies saying you need the toilet just because Josh said you’re bald is not the right away to deal with this—”
“It not about that!”
“Fine!” Emma declared, silencing her. Aziza sensed Emma’s temper rising to meet her own. “It’s not about that, but this is still not the right way to deal with it.”
“Then what should I do?” Aziza shot back.
“Oh, I don’t know. How about telling a flipping teacher? Like I’ve told you a million times before.” Emma’s sarcasm stung. But she was wrong.
“Teacher’s don’t care!” Aziza cried. “They never said a thing…not a single thing. Why would they change now?”
“Teachers do care. They just think it’s a class joke—”
“What part of discrimination is a joke? The teachers don’t care. They never have, they never will.”
Aziza saw Emma’s hand twitching, as if to fly up into her trademark face palm. As if thinking better of it, Emma‘s hand dropped to her side. “How are they supposed to care when you never ever tell them?”
Why can’t you just leave me the hell alone.
“Because you need to deal with this now.” Emma said, snapping Aziza out of it. She must’ve spoken that last thought aloud. Why couldn’t she just shut up and leave? Why did she have to come here in the first place?
“Forget this,” Aziza said, and tried to move past her. But Emma, despite being smaller than Aziza, pushed her back.
“You can’t keep running away from your problems like this.’
“Yes I can!” Aziza convinced herself more than anyone, but her voice wavered. She leaned her body against the wall, legs turning to jelly.
“Oh you can, can you?” Emma was tired of this as well. “Are you going to run away and paint your face white or something? So people aren’t racist anymore.”
“Stop it,” Aziza begged, but Emma was having none of it.
“No!” Emma shook Aziza’s shoulders. “Do you think I like seeing my best friend crying on the floor? Like seeing her run from class? Like seeing her get bullied every day.” Emma huffed. “Do you think I like being worried out of my mind about you because you keep running away?”
“Emma…please—stop…pretending you care.”
Emma recoiled like she’d been slapped in the face. “Of course I care! Why else would I be here?”
“No. You don’t care. You never have, so stop pretending like you want to help.”
Emma face was turning red. “How the heck am I supposed to help you—” She pointed an accusatory finger at Aziza “—if you can’t even help yourself.”
“I can help myself!” Aziza screamed, the words squeezing through her constricted throat. She took a few deep breaths. “I have a…plan,” she said. Emma would be the first to know, she decided. She is my best friend after all, even if she is like the rest.
But Emma started clapping, so loudly Aziza winced each time the sound pierced against her eardrums. “She has a plan, people,” Emma gazed around at an invisible audience. “And what’s this plan?” Her hands connected in a huge clap. “What stupid thing are you going to do, huh?" How are you going to help yourself next? Give up on your religion or something!”
Aziza’s blood froze. She felt the atmosphere suddenly change; the air burned with a tension so thick a knife could cut through it. Redness spread across her cheeks. She looked down at the ground for a few seconds, before giving the barest trace of a nod. “Yeah,” she whispered through the lump in her throat. Her mouth felt like acid had scorched through it.
The silence between them stretched for seconds…minutes…hours…days even. Aziza’s head hung on her neck like a limp limb, and the synchronised beating of their hearts echoed through the corridor. If I even have a heart, Aziza bitterly thought.
Aziza’s eyes felt sore, her throat burned from crying and shouting so much, and the silence grew tantamount to torture. Her eyes fixed themselves on the dotted floor, studying the pattern of…dots.
Finally, Emma shattered the deafening silence.
Aziza flinched, but steadied herself. She raised her head and met Emma’s glare. “No, I’m not mental. If I’m not a Muslim anymore, everyone will stop bullying me.”
“How can you say that? People will still make fun of you even if you’re—”
“No they won’t!” Aziza cried. “Every single insult, every single thing anyone has ever said about me is to do with me being a Muslim—” Her body rocked into a sob, and she angrily blinked away the moisture in her eyes.
“They still will!” Emma waved her hands around emphatically. “They want you to give up, to give in. The five pillars of Islam held you up this whole time. Giving up Islam isn’t going to make them stop. It’s just going to feed their insults.”
Aziza turned her head away. “I just want a way out.”
Emma grabbed her abaya and scarf from the floor and shoved them into her chest. “This is not a way out,” she said.
The walls closed around Aziza, trapping her. She was caged in with her raging thoughts and feelings. “Yes it is!” She burst out, making Emma flinch. She opened her mouth to apologise, but her eyes contracted, and she sobbed again, much more violently this time. Her clothes dropped to the floor. I’ll escape this time. She turned and ran, intending for the toilets in the next hallway. I just need to freshen up first, then I’ll go back and tell the rest of the—
“What would your parents say?” Aziza stiffened. A hadith about parents poked her mind. ‘The pleasure of Allah is in the pleasure of the parents, and the displeasure of Allah is in the displeasure of the—’
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said, body swaying like a tree in a hurricane of emotions. She cleared her head of hadiths, Quran—everything. “I’m done with this—this stupid religion of being bullied…mocked just for who I am. Well I’m changing who I am. I’m not Aziza the…the Muslim freak anymore.”
Emma marched towards her with angry strides. Rough hands grabbed Aziza’s shoulders and pushed her against the wall. “You don’t get to give up on your beliefs like that,” Emma shook her shoulder. “Bullying is bad, I get it—’
“No you don’t!” Aziza slapped Emma’s hands away and continued pacing towards the hallway. Emma didn’t follow her. Finally, she stops botheri—
“Islam is about holding onto your religion like a rope.” Aziza froze. Her entire body tensed up. “Remember when your prophet fought against the bullies. All the battles: Badr, Khandaq, Uhud. Even when he lost a battle, he still fought for what he knew was right.”
Aziza turned and looked at her in disbelief. “How—how do you know all that?”
“Because you were the one who told me,” Emma said, walking towards her as she spoke. “This is what you believe in, what you say all the time. You told me that Muhammad never gave up. So how can you give up? You told me Islam is about holding onto your religion like a rope…and all the hadith and the Quran…”
Emma’s voice tuned out as the memories flooded in.
Aziza remembered the feeling inside her chest every time she prayed. She remembered the sense of pride every time she declared she was a Muslim. She remembered fasting through the whole of Ramadan for the first time. She remembered the first verses she recited in the Quran. The first du’a, first salah, first time she wore a scarf. She remembered all the good things about Islam: praying, fasting, Jumu’ah in the holidays, waking up for fajr every day, going to the mosque after school, memorising the words of Allah, wearing the hijab.
She could never give all of that up. She couldn’t throw it all away like it was trash. What was she thinking!? Islam was in her blood, flowing through her veins – not just an accessory she put on. How could I ever give up something so precious? It might stop the bullying, but what would life be without praying, fasting, listening to the Quran and reciting the words of Allah. Islam was her identity. She wasn’t going to give up who she was.
“…not just a skin you can shed!” Emma’s voice brought her out of her reverie.
Emma took a deep breath. “I said: Islam is part of who you are, not just a skin you can shed. I don’t see you as Aziza the Muslim, I see you as THE Muslim Aziza. Wait – no…it was meant to be…uhh…forget it.” Emma gave her a sheepish grin. “That sounded way better in my head.”
Aziza tackled Emma into a hug. “I think I get the general idea,” she laughed tearily.
“Good.” Emma broke the hug, picked up Aziza’s scarf and abaya and handed them to her. “No more of this funny business, okay?”
“Okay,” Aziza agreed, glad Emma had set her straight. But then she frowned. “But what about the bullies?” They had started all of this.
“Show them what Islam is really like,” Emma said. “Do what Muhammad did and prove them wrong. Let them see the true Aziza.” Aziza nodded. She pulled her abaya over her head and re-tied her scarf around her hair.
Emma smiled at her. “Now that’s the Aziza I know.”
Emma led her towards the office where she could go rest until her parents picked her up at the end of school. Allah knows I need some rest.
Emma suddenly stopped and faced her. “Just remember one very important thing,” she said, eyes probing into Aziza’s own; green vs brown. The tension built up again, like a firework before it exploded, fizzing and cracking and hissing.
Aziza stared back resolutely, until she noticed the corner of Emma’s mouth lift almost imperceptibly.
“Don’t be Aziza the Muslim, be THE Muslim Aziza.” Emma broke the eye contact and continued walking, snickering.
Aziza just stood there for a moment, before chasing after her, laughing all the way. When she caught up, she declared proudly.
“I am not Aziza the Muslim, I am THE Muslim Aziza.”
They both dissolved into a fit of giggles.