I step out of the car and slam the door. I adjust the new hijab on my head and wrap the tassels around my fingers. Tighter and tighter.
Mama and Daddy have already gone inside, so I open the door and walk in to the air-conditioned foyer, shouting, “Assalamulaikum!”
“Walaikasalam,” says Naani, in her soft-spoken voice from the couch in the family room.
“Oy, close the door! The mosquitos are coming in,” says Naanji loudly. He perches in his favourite chair in the family room. His hair stands up in seven different directions and he wears an old shirt. He looks like he just woke up.
Ahmad walks closer to the door, but I still shut it. I step out of the sunlight to let him enter.
“Oy, shut the door!” Naanaji calls again to Ahmad. Ahmad hastily closes the door for fear of mosquitoes.
I take off my shoes. The conversation has stopped in the living room. I straighten up to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins staring at me in the entrance.
I finger the striped hijab on my head again. “What?”
“Oh my God, you’re wearing a hijab!” shouts my cousin Alaina, coming up to give me a tight hug. “When did this happen! You have to tell me all about it.”
I tug my scarf. “Yeah, it’s um, new.”
Alaina and my other cousins laugh.
“Looking good, Baj,” my uncle calls out to me, using my family nickname.
I duck into the family room, greet everyone, shake hands and hugs my aunts and uncles. Finally I reach my Nanaji.
His thick eyebrows bunch together as I approach him. I lean down to greet him and he pats me on the back, a waft of thick cigarette smoke entering my lungs. He doesn’t kiss the top of my head today.
“Why are you wearing that?” he asks in his deep voice.
I look at my parents but they look straight back at me. They had warned me. I gulp. “Because I want to dress modestly.”
“But you’re with us. Your family.” Nanaji frowns.
I finger the striped fabric on my head again.
He turns to look at my parents, glaring at my dad when he looks elsewhere. “When did this happen?”
“About a week ago.”
Nanaji scratches his whiskered face and runs a hand through his thick, curly gray hair. I remember putting clips and making pony tails into that hair with Sabila when Nanaji would take his afternoon naps, back when it used to be black.
“You know, beti, you don’t have to be extreme. People are going to judge you and target you. Islam doesn’t teach us to be extreme.” Nanaji wags his thick finger.
My eyes well up with tears.
“Look on TV, people are getting killed and harassed and targeted by all those jerks, you know, because of 9/11.” He rocks back and forth in his armchair. “And all for what? For nothing. Because those damned Americans did it themselves, they planned the whole bloody thing. They blamed it on Muslims, but you know what…”
I tune out. But I continue to nod and say uh huh, just like I do when he calls.
“…so you have to remember beti, that there is no extremism in Islam. You’re going to call attention to yourself, and people are going to attack you and say things to you. I don’t think this is for you. Especially because you’re so sensitive. You won’t be able to take it,” Naanaji says staring at me as my lip trembles. “I think you should take it off.”
I blink and look away.
“Okay, now go make me some chai.” He hands me his empty mug.
Jumping up, I run to the kitchen, passing my idle cousins standing near the dining room.
In the kitchen, I watch the water boil. Tears prickle my eyes.
“Here, I’ll make it for everyone,” my aunt says, coming into the kitchen.
I nod my thanks and take refuge in the washroom. I cry and claw the scarf on my head.
Through the thin walls, I can hear everyone chatting in the family room. Subhaan asks Naanaji if he can change the channel. He wants to watch the Disney Channel.
“No,” Naanaji growls. “I’m watching the game.” The volume increases and the commentary on quarterbacks and yards drift into the bathroom. I count the tiles through my tears.
Subhaan stomps away. My cousins are discussing school and upcoming family barbecues and parties. Their volume increases and Alaina laughs like a hyena.
“You guys are too loud!” Naanaji finally shouts. “Okay, all you kids go inside, because the adults have to talk about something important.”
I hear my cousins grumble and complain. But they don’t argue.
Someone knocks on the bathroom door. “I need to use the bathroom,” Sabila says. “Are you coming out soon?”
I open the door and run out. The scarf covers my face.
At dinner, I am coaxed out of Naani’s room by Alaina and Sabila. My stomach has been grumbling and Mama made really yummy chow mein today.
The different smells of biryani, roast chicken, chatnis, mutton salan and chow mein rise up to greet me when I enter the kitchen.
Mama hands me a plate, smiling. “My beti’s hungry right?”
I nod and head straight to the noodles. As I’m waiting for more naan to be warmed, Naanaji walks by me with his plate of mutton salan and biryani. “Baj! Noodles are haram, you know!”
Everyone laughs at this old joke. “You guys eat the yuckiest things, eat desi food. Pakistani food is the best food and you guys eat this rubbish,” he continues.
I turn my burning face away. “It’s not haram, Naanaji. It’s good to eat everything.”
“Salan and roti is the best in this world,” he says, taking a big whiff of his plate. “This is heaven right here. Don’t be ashamed of who you are, embrace your culture.”
“Acha, just let the kids eat their food,” Naani chides him and pushes him out of the kitchen, even though he’s six feet tall and counting.
As we get ready to leave after dinner, my brothers and I make our rounds around the family room to say goodbye to everyone. We shake hands, hug and get kissed.
As I’m kissing Naani’s feathery cheek and thinking of ways to avoid hugging Naanaji, Mama pipes up, “Dad, Ikhlas made the honour list this year.”
Everyone congratulates me. Naanaji’s crinkly face breaks out into a handsome grin. “That’s my girl. I’m proud of you, beta. I’m proud of you.” And he gestures for me to come to him. I lean down and he hugs me. “Good job. Keep ‘em coming. Make me proud.” And he kisses me on top of my scarf-clad head.