by Nadeem Zaman
There were the mosques up and down Devon Avenue and its side-streets, and there was the Muslim Community Center at Elston and Pulaski. We started there and went on to visit ten other mosques—and by visit I mean walking in, my father eyeballing the lobby, grumbling to himself that the congregation would probably be “infested” with Pakistanis, and walking out, my father shaking his head in abject refusal, pushing me along, insisting we hadn’t seen enough to make a decision, as if I was somehow adamant on selecting every one we entered—none of which was satisfactory.
Anam chacha had suggested the Muslim Community Center, it had the most eclectic congregants, including a good number of Bangladeshis. My father had made the peevish remark that they were probably the “sellout type,” by which he meant, without evidence, that they must speak Urdu and hide their true identity. At the same time, he wanted to start going to Jumma again and brought it up constantly. And if I were to put money on it I would bet that the moment he met another Bangladeshi, he would size them with as cutting an eye of judgment as any that he used on Pakistanis, suspecting everything about their life, from how they came to and were living in the US (illegally) to their professions (illegitimate.) This was rooted partly in him being soured by Bangladesh and the demoralizing turns the country took after independence, the crooks, thieves, and lousy political leaders it produced, and partly feeling that he had been one of the good ones and that had not been good enough. He had played by the rules and paid a heavy price. Those that didn’t, the ones that flouted the rules, were celebrated. They were the prominent and respected citizens the country cherished, and everything they were was dirty, their money, their tactics, their philosophies. These ones that left the country later, after making killings, continued their spree in their new homes overseas. Anam chacha had rightly argued that that was not true, not wholesale. America was way ahead on the illegality on every conceivable level long before Bangladeshis landed here. “You look deep enough into someone,” he added, “to a man you’ll find something in their past that’s illegitimate.” My father stood by his theory.
“It’s Jumma,” Anam chacha said, “once a week, in and out, you don’t have to speak to anyone.”
That seemed to work. Or maybe he resigned once more to the dearth of choices left to him down every path he went at this stage in his life. He chose the Jama Masjid of Chicago on Maplewood, off Devon Avenue. My guess was he picked the first one he remembered.
He wanted to make his first official visit by himself, after having forced me to tag along on his reconnaissance missions, which made perfect sense to me when it came to the ways and workings of my father’s mind, and told me I’d be going with him starting the next week “if all went well.”
“The imam was decent,” my father told Anam chacha. “But I didn’t care for him doing the sermon in bloody Urdu. It’s their assumption that everyone speaks their language that I can’t stand.”
Anam chacha chuckled.
“Next time, talk back to them in Bangla. At least now it won’t get you killed like in seventy-one.”
I thought it was a great strategy and gave it a try.
Next day at school during lunch when Amir, Malik, Teddy, and Zeeshan spoke in Urdu and Teddy unmindfully said something to me, knowing full well I wouldn’t respond in any other language but English, I snapped back in Bangla that he came from a race of murdering thugs.
“What the fuck?” said Teddy, mouth hanging open showing masticated food. “What did you just say?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Say it again,” said Zeeshan. “My father had Bungalee friends in Karachi, many of them.”
“Never mind,” I said.
“Jai Bungla,” Teddy cackled. “Jai Sheikh Mujib.”
I was amazed that he knew Sheikh Mujib’s name. For Bangladeshis, he was the Father of the Nation, and, as far as I knew, for Pakistanis a traitor.
“Jinnah was an asshole and so was Bhutto,” I said, with vehemence that surprised even me.
“Chutia is losing his mind,” Teddy said, dismissing me with a wave.
“Are you feeling okay?” Amir asked me later.
“I know you understand everything we say in Urdu,” he said.
“I told you, I don’t.”
“Okay. Whatever. It has to suck not being able to talk in your own tongue, I get it. My parents didn’t speak much English at all when we first came here. Abbajaan took night classes, then taught my mother. Me and my brother were their official translators for a while, and we were kids.”
I didn’t know how it would be, or if it would be any better, had I had other Bangladeshi friends in school. But Amir, Malik, Zeeshan, and Teddy were the first I’d made since we moved to Chicago the year before. I couldn’t have gone through freshman year without their support, guidance, and even protection in our gang-infested, fights-erupting-on-a-dime, clannishly-divided, racist high school. In one school year they’d filled the hollow void left by the absence of my circle back in Bangladesh.
My father would never own up to the discomfort his face, his body, his being couldn’t hide, the moment we stepped inside the mosque. I wasn’t too far from it myself, although how much of it was my own feelings and how much transferred from my father was up for debate. We came out of the boiling, humid afternoon into the cool, plush quiet of the prayer hall, dabbing our sweaty forehead with our sleeves, and my father wanted to sit as far back as possible to avoid talking to anyone. Here and there people nodded at us, salaamed, as they filed in, all of whom my father ignored. I was nauseous already from the incense, and, as the room filled up, body odor. Cab drivers and service workers made up the bulk of the congregants. Like us, they were taking time out of the middle of their workday to send their orisons to Allah on the Muslim holy day, and they brought with them in their clothes and on their skin the trapped hours spent behind their steering wheels and kitchens.
Eid prayers were the only two times in the year I was required to join my father and grandfather at our neighborhood mosque in Dhaka. The rest of the day was the pleasure for which this morning penance was the price. We would walk the short distance to the mosque and enter the prayer hall for the next interminable hours until my little bones and joints were screaming from sitting on the ground. The prayer part was just the beginning. After it came the imam’s Eid sermon, which could last an additional eternity. His voice blasted over loudspeakers mounted to the sides of the mosque’s edifice, blaring out to the congregants spilled and spread out on the grounds outside. At certain points they became chants that people responded to with “Amin!” I said it, too, having no idea what I was lauding, except that it was another instance of Allah’s greatness, fearing the wrath of Allah if I didn’t. Afterward, we hugged each other three times on each side, said Eid Mubarak, and went home to the first of many feasts of the next several days.
As it was in those Eid prayer days, so it went at Jumma: I mimicked the motions of the namaaz the imam led, counting the seconds until it was over. When the namaaz part came to an end, some people left, some stayed back. My father, to my chagrin, counted us among the latter. The imam began his sermon. It was in Urdu. Sensing my father tense up I tried getting a look at him out of the corner of my eye. I made a miniscule adjustment with my head; enough to see the fury with which he was regarding the imam. It was the expression I’d seen hundreds of times when he talked about the war. If I saw someone glowering at me like that for an extended period I’d be worried. The imam went on with his sermon, unfazed. He never once looked in my father’s direction, or at anyone else for that matter. He was immersed in his words, lost in them. It didn’t matter who was looking at him, with what intentions or sentiments in their heart. He was speaking fast, as if from rote memorization. It occurred to me that he made the same sermon every week. I couldn’t explain why but that diminished his authority, even if I didn’t hold him in particular esteem. It was like catching a singer lip-synching on stage, no matter if I was a fan or not. Taking them seriously became difficult. By the end, I’d lost track altogether, and went back to wishing the misery over.
“Wait,” my father said as we got to our feet, and made his way to the imam.
I got as close as I could without stoking his attention or bringing the imam’s on me. The imam salaamed my father, my father returned his greeting.
“You have non-Urdu-speaking people here too,” my father told him in English. “What if they don’t understand your sermon? I’m Bengali. From Bangladesh. Where do I go to hear a sermon in Bangla?”
The imam, who looked older up close, had hooded eyes and a pointy nose with a sloped bridge. It was the kind of nose I’d grown up knowing as “aristocratic,” denoting “good blood” and “class.” A team of angels couldn’t say that to my father at that moment about the man he was facing. The imam was at a loss. Or he didn’t speak English.
“Just letting you know,” my father finished, as if he was leaving a complaint over bad service at a restaurant or store. I guess it was a complaint of sorts, to the highest authority known to man, about one of his employees doing an unsatisfactory job, giving preferential treatment to some and ignoring others, when it was his duty to treat everyone equal. What reprimand would the imam receive, I wondered. I wondered, too, why my father hadn’t made his complaint in Bangla.
I wanted to feel special now that I had a mosque of my own. I came close to telling my friends several times but it didn’t seem relevant, and when they talked about what was going on at their mosque on a given evening, I listened with envy, because theirs sounded more exciting, more vibrant. They talked about band performances and dance competitions, sports leagues and outings to Six Flags Great America, none of which I associated with mosque or religion. They had fun. My training in religion was the opposite. Fun died where religion stepped in. Fun was ungodly, frivolous, and a certain path to the fires of hell. Prayer, humility, faith were all. I wanted to go to their mosque.
The fact I couldn’t threw me for a new loop. I was under the impression that all mosques were alike and Muslims everywhere could enter and pray and be part of one they chose. Not only could I not be part of my friends’ mosque, I would be forbidden to so much as step inside, not even for a tour.
“You’ll keep other Muslims out from a mosque?” I said, outraged.
“No,” said Amir. “Just ours.”
“And you are Muslims, aren’t you?”
“Of course we are.”
“So am I. So? What’s the problem? I thought all Muslims were the same.”
“No, that’s not how it works.”
“I don’t get it then. I don’t know what kind of Muslim you people are. We allowed everyone in our mosque in Dhaka. Even Hindus and Christians.”
“That’s just how it is.”
“Then you’re not real Muslims.”
Amir was as though he couldn’t care less. I was more shocked than he at my own words, echoing in my ears like gunshots.
I didn’t speak to Amir for two days. I didn’t call him and I didn’t take his calls. There was a month of summer vacation left, which made avoiding him easier. Then, when he started keeping his distance, I felt worse. I wanted him to pursue me. I wanted him to open the door to apology and absolution. I didn’t have the courage to do it myself. It was humiliating. I didn’t know how to be wrong and call myself out for it.
My parents did not become religious until the last few years we lived in Bangladesh. The source of the shift was unclear to me, other than that they believed God had a hand in keeping my father out of trouble and jail. It was during that time that my father began attending Jumma prayers and my mother started doing the five-time daily namaaz. My father didn’t make me go with him, my mother didn’t push me to join her on the prayer mat.
I had no desire to go back, ever, to another Jumma prayer, but I went out of curiosity over my father’s next move on the imam. I hadn’t seen him moved by anything quite as much as this in the year and a half we’d been in the US. He didn’t watch the news, didn’t follow current events or US politics, believed American history was not history and hence not worth his time, and snubbed my mother when she tried to talk about Bangladesh and the past. This last was the ultimate test.
My father loved nothing more than to recall stories of the war, of leaving home with a group of friends days after the army massacred Dhaka in March ’71 and making the trek across the country into India. He was unlike others that saw war, any war, in that way. He spoke with pride about going from undisciplined scalawags into a force that hobbled and destroyed an army backed with American firepower.
The imam began his sermon. I had gone through the prayer portion in my usual posture of apathy and began my mental count of the microseconds before the torture would be over. I was barely to three when my father uncoiled his legs and pushed to his feet.
“Mr. Imam,” he said. The imam stopped, his mouth half-open, the word he was about to utter whisked to silence. Heads turned. I pulled my knees up to my chest and lowered my head. “Can you speak in English? My son and me, we don’t speak Urdu, we don’t understand it. Why do we come to Jumma if we can’t understand what you’re saying?”
Whispers and muttered confusion susurrated in the quiet hall. The rickety revolutions of the ceiling fans became amplified.
“Brother, what seems to be the problem?” asked a man from the front in Urdu. He wore a lambskin karakul cap and had a bright henna-orange beard.
My father looked at him, took a breath.
“I’m not talking to you. And I don’t know what you’re saying. Mr. Imam?”
“He doesn’t speak English,” said the man.
“Does he speak Bangla then? Or Nigerian or Somali or Farsi?”
“Brother, no reason to get upset, we’re in mosque,” the man said, with disconcerting composure, and in English.
“I know where we are,” said my father. “This mosque is for all Muslims. Not just one kind.”
I wanted to shrivel and die. I could tell there were eyes on me as well, and they made me feel helpless. If there was a God, the bastard would get me out of this fix, in his house.
“Brother, please, calm down, have a seat,” said the man.
“You be quiet,” my father shot back. “I have the right to speak as much as you. I can speak in my own language just like you. Will you talk back to me in Bangla? Will you?” He took a few steps forward. “Will you? Or does everyone always have to bow to your way of doing things?”
I had brought my head up out of its cocoon of shame, to see my father rigid as a post, his fists clenched at his sides. I called to him in a whisper. It was useless.
“Go,” said the imam, in Urdu, stretching his arm, pointing to the door.
“Your Allah only talks like you want him to talk then,” said my father.
“Brother, please go in peace,” said the man in the lambskin cap.
“Peace,” my father hissed. “You people have the gall to talk of peace.”
We didn’t leave when we came out of the mosque. My father had us stand to the side of the entrance, like we were going to pounce someone, ambush them. It was exactly what he did. When the man in the karakul cap walked out, my father tapped his shoulder. My blood froze. I had never seen my father violent, but everything had a first time.
“Who are you?” my father demanded.
“Excuse me?” the man frowned. It was as if he had never seen my father in his life.
“Do you speak for this place?” my father asked.
“I – I’m on the board, yes. Is there…?” recognition dawned on him. “You were just now inside, were you not?”
“Let me ask you,” said my father, “since you are on the board, why can you not find an imam that speaks more than just Urdu? Why could you not find someone at least who speaks English?”
The man looked around him as someone would being accosted by a madman.
“The men that pray here don’t all speak good English,” he said.
“Do they all speak Urdu?” my father challenged.
“For the most part, yes. Please don’t be upset. I understand what you are saying.” He offered his hand. “My name is Wasim Mudassir. You’re from Dhaka?”
My father gave him a moment’s cautious regard.
“I was born in Dhaka. My mother’s people are from there. I lived there most of my life. I wouldn’t have left if it hadn’t been for the war. This is your son? Hello, uncle, how are you? Would you two like to get a cup of tea?”
I didn’t think my father would accept and I waited for him to decline with an insult.
“What did you do in Dhaka?” he said instead.
“Let’s get a cup of tea,” said Mudassir. “Or maybe a lassi. It’s so hot.”
We walked to Ghareeb Nawaz restaurant on Devon. Inside it was crowded with a similar makeup of people as the congregants of the mosque. My father hesitated a moment when Mudassir held the door open for us, eyeing the place suspiciously. On the short walk over, Mudassir had spoken affectionately about Dhaka. He had attended Dhaka University until the start of the war, then transferred to the University of Punjab in Lahore when his family moved there. He didn’t like it. His friends were in Dhaka, his life had been in Dhaka. His wife was from there as well. Dhaka was home.
It was that, I guessed, that had held my father as long as it had in Mudassir’s company and softened his ire, and the reason we walked in.
Mudassir insisted on buying. He got teas for my father and himself and a mango lassi for me. The delicious aromas of biryani and meat were intensifying my hunger that had been growing since the mosque. My mouth watered at the pictures of the mouth-watering dishes decorating the walls. I inhaled the lassi like food and hoped Mudassir, like a good elder, would ask if I wanted another, and maybe something to eat. But he and my father were far too deep in their conversation.
“I wanted to go back after the war,” Mudassir told my father. “But my mother wouldn’t let me. Our property was confiscated by the new Bangladesh government and people we knew had been killed by the Mukti Bahini. But then in Lahore also we were not welcome because we had spoken against the army and its violence in East Pakistan. We saw it, before we left. For years we had no friends. We were blacklisted, if you will.” He stopped, looked out the window, looked down at the dregs at the bottom of his Styrofoam cup. “My parents never got over the shocks. First losing Dhaka, then half the country, and then…it was such a horrible affair, all of it.”
I waited once more for my father to lash out. Mudassir had mentioned the Mukti Bahini, and not in a good light. As far as my father was concerned, the Muktis could do no wrong. He had been a proud volunteer. He had trained and fought with men, and women, who to him were goddesses and gods. He wouldn’t stand for a Pakistani – it didn’t matter that he was born in Dhaka – disparaging them. My father was not a man who kept pictures and memorabilia, but for twenty years he’d carried one snapshot in his wallet, which I had been shown only once. It was of him and the friends with whom he had left Dhaka to join the independence movement at the start of the war. It was taken days after the end of the war upon their return to the city. But for the weapons they were hoisting in jubilation they looked like a long-haired, bearded rock band of the time. My father brought out his wallet, drew out the photograph with great care, and set it on the table. Mudassir looked at it for a long time, longer than I, or even my father, expected.
My father told Mudassir that once they were in Dhaka, something unraveled. The war was over, the Pakistan army devastated, the surrender of Niazi to Arora recorded for posterity. It was, some of them believed, then that something came apart, something fundamental they thought was stronger. They, the entire Mukti Bahini, were prepared to be the true and rightful recipients of the surrender, but Niazi would not concede to them, to Bengalis, to a guerilla force that had outmaneuvered his world-class army. The victors went on the hunt. They targeted Urdu speakers and those they called Biharis, unwanted non-Bengalis whose allegiance was with Pakistan, and they ended up murdering Bengalis as Bengali as themselves. They’d come back to stories of their families and their friends being woken in the middle of the night by death squads led by Pak officers and their Bengali collaborators. At this news, some of them dropped their weapons on the spot. Others joined in the executions of those collaborators that the Mukti Bahini carried out in public.
Friendships ended. Rifts broke that nothing could heal.
My father had been talking without a break for ten minutes. I had tracked the time on my watch. It was easier to keep my eyes down than at either of them.
“It was a horrible affair, you are right. But it didn’t have to be.”
Mudassir looked at him, in a way he hadn’t until then. There was confusion, even a touch of alarm, in it.
“No, it didn’t.” He looked at his watch. “What is it you do?”
“I’m a businessman,” my father said proudly, the way he used to in Bangladesh.
“Export, import, telecom.”
“You are based here?”
My father’s tone had tightened again, reverted to its familiar setting.
Mudassir looked at me.
“Uncle, would you like something to eat?”
“No. We have to go,” my father answered.
We walked to the store in silence.
“So?” said Anam chacha. “How was it?” My father didn’t answer. Anam chacha laughed, gave me a wink. “You get used to it. If you don’t, well, that’s when you do what I did. Forget god.”
Our lunch tasted bland against the rich aromas of the restaurant I couldn’t get over. I would have to ask Zeeshan to make a stop there. I would probably be voted down because we, led by Teddy’s bullying, ended up at one fast food place or another. It was no wonder, along with my mother’s refusal to hear of a diet, I was having a hard time losing weight and toning up. My father ate quietly, his occasional slurping the only sound while we finished our meals.
We went back for two more months of Jumma prayers. The next time, I was sure, would be the last. My father would finally go overboard, crack up, throttle the imam maybe and get himself, and consequently me, beaten up, and have us banned from every mosque in town (which would be the answer to my prayers). But nothing remotely close happened. My father didn’t say another word. He made us sit at the same spot at the back. It had become our reserved space. We went through the motions. We stayed for the imam’s post-prayer sermons, during which my father zoned out, not caring for what language it was or what was being said, hearing only, I imagined, his own war of words with God.
Nadeem Zaman is the author of two works of fiction, a novel In the Time of the Others which was longlisted for the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and a collection of stories Up in the Main House (Unnamed Press 2019). Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he grew up there and in Chicago. His fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, Singapore Unbound, Wilderness House Literary Review, Roanoke Review, Dhaka Tribune, Bengal Lights, and other journals. His novel The Inheritors will be published by Hachette India in 2022. He teaches in the English department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
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