Reborn City Excerpt
Zahara was a little girl again, walking in the marketplace with her parents. When she had lived in Cairo, the outside world, with all its complications and problems, seemed as far away as the moon. Walking along the dusty streets, breathing in the sweet scent of the Nile and listening to the call of the muezzin as he alerted the faithful to the hour of worship, Zahara had felt at home in this place. Her whole world comprised of her, her mother, and her father and most importantly, it was a safe world, a place where people were respectful and courteous, where no one got hurt, where little girls could grow up knowing they’d be taken care of all through life and never have to worry about a single thing.
And then Zahara’s father had moved the family to New York City.
At first Zahara had not understood. Why would Emir Bakur, Zahara’s father and hero, rip her from everything she’d ever known and take them across the globe to a place she’d never even heard of? Because Zahara’s father stood to inherit his parents’ business, a used car lot that Emir loathed to be near, let alone run.
“It’s a dirty business.” Emir would say to anyone who asked. “The automobiles are rusty heaps of junk that don’t run on vegetable byproducts but run on gasoline—expensive to import, and even more expensive to buy from my parents!—and are wildly overpriced. Plus they clog up the streets with their filthy fumes and make noise that wakes up anyone who is trying to get some sleep. I would be mad to even think of running that pigsty!”
Zahara’s father had already finished his courses in pre-law and on the suggestion of several of his teachers and friends, applied and was accepted at the prestigious law school at New York University over the more-than-adequate courses at the University of Cairo. Of course nobody told Zahara’s grandparents of their son’s intentions; the shock of their son’s treachery might’ve sent them both to their graves that much earlier. Zahara’s grandparents had very low opinions of the Western cities, believing them corrupt and comprised entirely of sore losers who were still angry with the Muslim terrorists of ages past over the Third World War.
Zahara had understood neither her father’s nor her grandparents’ viewpoints, but she had understood one thing: that she was afraid to move to New York. She knew nothing of the place and for all she knew there might be monsters there, or people who weren’t respectful like in Cairo. Or even worse, New York City might be home to Western devils, who, according to Zahara’s grandmother, used flashing lights and pretty words and sounds and strange ideas and buildings that changed their shapes to put spells on Muslims so that they turned away from Allah and rejected everything that was sacred and good. If such people lived in New York City, Zahara definitely didn’t want to live there.
But in the end, what could she have done? As a child, she was the equivalent of property that belonged to her parents, to be dragged from one place to another. And as a woman, this was even more so. So after Zahara’s grandparents had both died—one from cancer, the other from grief—Zahara’s father had sold the used car lot and had moved them out to New York.
The first day of school was the toughest for Zahara. For two weeks they had lived in New York by that point but so far the only English she knew was “pizza” and “taxi”.
And even though she enrolled in an ESL course, she didn’t feel like she belonged: the moment Zahara had been dropped off into her classroom, all the students had sneered at her and the teacher had fixed Zahara with such a dirty look that Zahara felt ashamed just standing there. As she had taken her seat, the coldness Zahara felt directed towards her was palpable.
At lunch Zahara sat by herself with her packed lunch while the other kids went to buy their lunches from the school. Zahara was about to bite into her falafel when a boy in her ESL class had appeared, a deep scowl on his face. He pointed to her and then to her falafel, saying something in a language that might’ve been Russian. Zahara put down her falafel and shook her head, indicating that she didn’t understand. The boy’s frown deepened and he pointed again to the falafel sandwich. Then the boy pointed to the school lunch he was holding and Zahara understood. She shook her head and pointed to the hamburger on the boy’s tray: no, she couldn’t eat that. Zahara’s mother had been firm on that subject.
“Zahara, you will be tempted to try and do things that, as a follower of Allah, you can’t do.” Zahara’s mother had said. “One of these things you cannot do is eat any of the school’s food. You will be tempted, but remember, to fight temptation is to be the best you can be for Allah.”
Zahara had tried to say all this to the boy, but whether it was he thought Zahara was being silly or he didn’t speak Arabic, he only seemed infuriated. Before Zahara could stop him the boy had picked up the falafel and had thrown it in her face. As Zahara had wiped away the falafel and seasonings from her eyes to the sight of the rest of the lunchroom shrieking and laughing at her, she suddenly understood that whatever had happened during the Third World War, it hadn’t made the Western cities sore like her grandparents had believed; it had made them angry and mean.
Coming home in tears, Zahara asked her mother why her class and the Russian boy and her teacher had hated her so much. She had cried against her mother’s hip while her mother had explained it to her.
“A long time ago, there were some people,” said Zahara’s mother. “They were followers of Allah, like us. But they became confused and thought that in order to please Allah they must hurt people who did not follow Allah, especially the People of the Book, Jews and Christians. They did some terrible things, and they caused a terrible war. These people are no longer around, but people think that because of them, all followers of Allah are bad people.”
“Why do they think that, Mother?” Zahara asked.
“Before these people had committed these crimes, many nations did not know much about us, the followers of Allah,” Zahara’s mother answered. “And because of these bad people, many just assumed that we are like them.” Zahara’s mother had then lifted Zahara’s chin and said to her, “Remember Zahara, illaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah. Allah is the One True God and Muhammad is His Prophet. We all have our places in the world. If you keep your head high and try your hardest, you’ll find yours and all the bad things that happen to you will be just distant memories of days past.”
Zahara couldn’t help but feel cheered by her mother’s words; her mother Aaliyah, who was so kind and smart and beautiful, surely was right. The next day Zahara went to school feeling much better. She just had to remember as her mother had said, illaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah. Allah is the One True God, and Muhammad is His Prophet. That was the shahada, the creed of Islam, reminding Muslims of who they were and Whom they served with all their hearts and souls. Surely if she tried her hardest, Allah would help her.
She managed to keep up her spirits all throughout the morning, but at lunch the Russian boy showed up again. He pointed to his grilled cheese sandwich and to Zahara’s chicken. Zahara stood her ground, quiet and resolute. She half-expected him to pick up her lunch again and throw it at her. To her surprise, he instead picked up his chocolate milk carton and raised it high into the air. All eyes turned to Zahara and the Russian boy.
Suddenly a girl appeared and took the milkbox out of the boy’s hand. Zahara and the Russian boy stared at the girl as she began to yell at the boy in English. The girl then pointed in the direction away from them and said something in English. Even with her poor comprehension of the language Zahara understood what the girl was saying: Leave now or else.
The Russian boy trembled, as if unsure of what to do. Finally he turned and walked away, looking angry and humiliated. All around Zahara people were staring at her and the new girl, wide-eyed and silent. The quiet was so great that Zahara began to wonder if she’d suddenly lost her hearing.
Suddenly the girl who had come to Zahara’s rescue turned and sat next to Zahara. Zahara and the rest of the lunchroom gaped at the girl, Zahara’s eyes feeling as wide as a goldfish’s. The girl extended her hand and said “Vanna.” It took Zahara a moment to realize that this girl had just introduced herself. Tentatively Zahara reach out and took the girl’s hand. “Zahara.”
Vanna Dupree, as it turned out, became Zahara’s first and closest friend, a few years older than Zahara and helped Zahara with her English when the cruel teacher from the ESL class proved inadequate. A combined dose of ESL lessons, Vanna’s tutoring, and picking up words on the streets soon had Zahara speaking enough English to get by.
One day, while sitting on a bench during recess, Zahara finally asked Vanna why she had stood up for her. Vanna had thought about it for a second before speaking, as she always did before saying something important.
“My mom says that hating Muslims is stupid,” Vanna explained. “She says that the terrorists that hurt people and sent that A-bomb to Des Moines are all gone and that people should realize that. But some people still think that all Muslims are bad and she’d want me to stop that. Besides, you’re fun to be around.”
Zahara had blushed at Vanna’s smile. “I only know…that some bad Muslims…long time ago and they caused a big war. Now people hate Muslims.” she said, looking at her feet. “Do you think it will ever end? The hate?”
Vanna shrugged. “Some people—plenty of people—here in New York want the hate to end. But there are some who can’t seem to let go. My mom says that this hatred might take longer to let go. Before the war, New York was one city out of thousands across the continent. Now there are only, like, a couple hundred cities left, and they only care about themselves. Some people blame the Muslims for that. They think the Muslims took all that away, all the patriotism and flags with fifty stars and stuff. It’s kinda sad.”
“What do you think?” Zahara asked.
“I think my mommy’s right.” Vanna answered. “This hatred is stupid. It just makes you want to act like a stupid boy and hit everything.” They had a good laugh and began talking about how boys did seem quite stupid.
Zahara would later learn that Vanna, although she seemed to know a lot, was, at age eight, optimistically naïve and uneducated about all the facts. Zahara’s father often took Zahara to the closest of the three Sunni mosques in New York on Friday and Sunday evenings to learn about Islam and her heritage. This eventually came to include learning about the former conflicts with the Israelis and the Palestinians, the attacks of 9/11, the rise and fall of al-Qaida, and several other topics about the terrorists and the attacks on the people the terrorists had called akafir, infidels.
By age ten Zahara felt like she was an expert on Muslim relations to non-Muslims, though she wasn’t proud of it; she was saddened to learn that only a minority of New York’s non-Muslim population openly fought for Muslim rights. Half the city openly supported and tried to pass strict laws against Muslims, and the rest didn’t voice their opinions either way. Vanna had made things seem slightly better, but truthfully the situation was much worse.
Even at the university’s law school, where Zahara’s father learned in the classrooms and worked in the library, things were far from perfect: underneath the air of acceptance of new ideas and beliefs was an anti-Muslim sentiment that burned the skin and chilled the heart.
“They preach that all ideas can be discussed in a college, but they don’t mean it.” Zahara once heard her father say to her mother in Arabic. “Today in the lecture hall I heard someone cough ‘terrorist’ at me and even though I don’t know who it was, I know it was one of the people who laughed. And another thing, I’m paid less than the rest of the staff, even less than that boy from Toledo who was just hired.”
“Maybe he’s spent more time working in a library than you, Emir.” Zahara heard her mother say from her hiding place beside the door to the kitchen. Zahara’s father scoffed loudly. “Oh you know that’s not true, Aaliyah.” he said. “I’ve seen you come home crying and hide it from Zahara. It’s rough out there. But once I’m done with law school I’ll get a job and be so good at it that it won’t matter that we’re followers of Allah. They’ll just see a successful family and respect it. You’ll see. Insha Allah, we may even have a townhouse one day.”
Zahara repeated her father’s prayer in her head. Insha Allah. If Allah wills.
Zahara grew up and learned to love the city of New York, sometimes forgetting its darker side in favor of its exotic thrills and quick pace and sleek and shiny cars that ran on steam or vegetable byproducts instead of gasoline. Zahara’s father did get a job at a law firm, though it wasn’t enough to move them out of their apartment and into a townhouse. Zahara’s mother even got a job at the Sunni mosque they attended, teaching women’s classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Zahara graduated from the ESL course and was deemed intelligent enough to be in the third grade with Vanna. There, Vanna introduced Zahara to Amber, Simon, Magic, and other kids who believed with the firmness of children that Muslims were good people and that all those who thought otherwise were wrong.
These people were the people Zahara hung out with, went to the mall and movies with, who she studied with after school, and who went with her to the small and sporadic pro-Muslim rallies when her parents couldn’t go.
But even though Zahara felt at home with her friends, she noticed how different she was from them: while Vanna wore short skirts or even pants, Zahara only had long, ankle-covering skirts; while Simon and Magic pretended to flirt with each other and hold hands, Zahara shied away from boys who gave her anything close to a second glance; and while Amber went out to eat and then to concerts or plays on Friday nights, Zahara went with her family to the mosque to study and pray.
These things didn’t disturb Zahara or ruin her relationship with her friends. But it was a constant reminder that no matter how close Zahara was to her friends, there would be differences between them. These differences would only intensify when Zahara became old enough to be required to wear a headscarf, if not a full burqa.
Was there a way for Zahara to be Westernized like her friends while still following Allah’s will? Zahara desperately wanted to know if that was possible.
After deliberating on it for awhile, Zahara decided to ask her parents. Certainly their answer would solve all her problems. With her parents Zahara could discuss anything, and they always had something helpful to say. There was no reason Zahara could think of that her parents would not know how to help.
At dinner, Zahara opened her mouth to ask the question. “Um…Mother, Father, I have a question for you.” said Zahara, picking her words carefully. “You see, I—”
“Zahara.” Emir interrupted. “I know what you’re going to ask.”
Zahara stared at her father. “Y-You do?”
”You’re at that age, and I’ve seen you looking like you’re deep in thought these past few days.” said Zahara’s father, sipping his water. “Believe it or not, you’re much easier to read than you would think.
“Listen, your mother and I have talked and this is what we have decided: you can do whatever you want in order to feel connected with your friends…as long as you don’t forget who you are as a Muslim.”
“W-What do you mean?” asked Zahara.
“We mean that there is nothing wrong with being part of the Western world.” Aaliyah replied. “But at the same time you must not turn your back on Allah and His commandments. That is what we mean.”
Zahara looked from one parent to the other, then finally settled for picking at her shakshuka. It seemed that was the end of the conversation.
Having had her parents’ permission, Zahara decided to indulge in some of what the Western world had to offer her; she wore make-up for the first time to school and stopped being as reserved as she was with her friends. Vanna and the others, to Zahara’s surprise and delight, took these changes in stride, not questioning why their timid friend suddenly seemed more extroverted, probably attributing it to Zahara entering adolescence. For all Zahara cared it meant she could finally have a foot in each world: part of her a Muslim, the other a regular New York girl.
As time went on other things changed: although she never ate pork or seafood or anything with lard, she ate out at pizzerias and restaurants; she now wore short-sleeved shirts and jean pants—never shorts or short skirts—everywhere but the mosque, where she wore a dress and a headscarf. Zahara even danced to modern music a little, though never any ostentatious moves and never at a party or a club.
Zahara may have been partially under the spell of the Western devils, as her grandmother would’ve said, but Zahara felt comfortable and she still felt like she was a true Muslim, and nobody ever criticized her over it or anything.
The biggest change though was when Zahara dyed her hair blonde. This change had been Zahara’s mother’s idea rather than Zahara’s: as Zahara had joined school at the third grade level with Vanna and the others after the ESL course, she would be entering high school a few years earlier than others her age. After reading an article in a magazine about increased bullying in high schools—not just for Muslims, but for children in general—Aaliyah had decided that Zahara needed one more Western touch for her new school.
The last week of summer vacation, Aaliyah had taken Zahara into the family bathroom and had applied the dye. When Zahara saw herself in the mirror, her first thought had been, I look like one of those over-tanned beach babes from those teen movies. Then another thought entered Zahara’s mind. “Will Father approve?” she asked. “Or Allah?”
“They’ll have to.” said Zahara’s mother. “High school’s a whole other world. You lose old friends and gain new ones. I just want the process to be easier.”
“That’s just on television, Mother.” Zahara replied.
“Just listen to me, Zahara.” said Aaliyah. “Do you know Mrs. Malek?”
Zahara nodded, thinking of the stout woman from the mosque who made very spicy falafel and always carried a copy of the hadiths in her arms.
“Her eldest daughter Ozza was in a high school for a while.” Zahara’s mother went on. “She stayed for two years before dropping out. All her friends joined different cliques and she was all alone. The teasing got so bad she dropped out before her summer vacation. She’s getting married soon, but her fiancé says the biggest challenge he has with her is to make her smile. I don’t want the same to happen to you.”
Zahara was more worried about her mother using such an old-fashioned word as “clique”, but she put up with the blonde hair, deciding this was as far as she would go in becoming Western like her friends . Besides, she thought, leaning forward towards the mirror to get a better look at herself, being a blonde might not be so bad. The teachers will be super surprised when I get good grades.
That brought a smile to Zahara’s face, but once her father got home smiling was the last thing Zahara felt like doing. As soon as he saw her, he flew into a rage, asking who had dyed her hair. When Zahara had timidly answered, Emir had stormed to the kitchen. A shouting match ensued that lasted through the night. Zahara was only barely able to block out the noise, and the next morning at breakfast the atmosphere around the table was much cooler than any of them would’ve liked.
When school rolled around, twelve-year-old Zahara walked into school with Vanna and the others, constantly pulling at her blonde hair and looking around furtively. She wasn’t so much concerned about being spotted as a Muslim; the clothes and hair made up for that. The only thing that worried her was whether her peers would be okay with someone much younger than them.
Zahara soon realized that she had had her fears mixed up: nobody had a problem with a twelve-year-old in their ranks, but many had a problem with a Muslim in their school. As soon as Zahara had introduced herself and spoken her name to her homeroom class, it was as if a shockwave had rippled out from around her.
Once word had spread around school that there was a Muslim in the school, and one trying to impersonate regular New Yorkers, the majority of the school quickly divided itself into three camps:
One group, which Zahara thought of as the separatists, avoided Zahara at all costs. They weren’t antagonistic to her, but they certainly were afraid of the social stigma if others thought they hung out with her. Zahara rarely interacted with these people and when she did it was always short and to the point.
The second crowd Zahara called hyenas, and that’s exactly what they seemed like to her: mean, racist, and full of obnoxious laughter that had only one target. Zahara tried to avoid these people as much as the separatists avoided her, but when they showed their ugly faces, she could expect some ugly taunting.
“Hey Zahara, you got a bomb in your panties? That’s the only way you can take ‘em off, right?”
“Don’t get too close, she’ll suck you into her black robes and you’ll never be seen again.”
“Dirty terrorist, she’d blow herself up and not care whether or not she’d get her virgins. That’s how the girls always think.”
Thankfully the third group was the one Zahara could count on: people like Vanna and the gang, people who weren’t afraid to associate with Muslims, or others who just didn’t like to see bullying in their school. Zahara relied on these people and most of them made an effort to make her feel welcome and safe in the school. Zahara called them the Book People, because even if she didn’t know what faith they belonged to, they seemed to fully embody the Jewish and Christian faiths’ tenets to be kind to others.
Zahara got by in high school, thanks to the help of the Book People. Through them, she was able to focus on her studies and make it to the top tier of her class without worrying too much about cruel pranks from mean hyena girls or attacks from racist bullies.
When her parents heard how she was coping with high school, Aaliyah lit up and insisted that it was the choice to dye Zahara’s hair blonde that had allowed Zahara to get so many people protecting her. Emir and Zahara disagreed with Aaliyah, but Zahara allowed her mother to dye her hair every couple of months so as to keep it a pristine shade of beach-girl blonde.
When she entered her junior year, Zahara met Aasim Mahmoud, a freshman who immediately took a liking for her. Zahara liked him, too. Aasim was funny and smart and treated everybody, even the worst of the hyenas, with respect. He was also a Muslim, which took a little bit of the pressure off Zahara, and gave her a friend at school she could talk with about Muslim issues and about the intricacies of the religion on the same level as her.
However he was a year older than Zahara and a Shiite, so even if he was a Muslim, he was the wrong type of Muslim. These things, in Zahara’s opinion, worked less in Aasim’s favor than for it.
But she had to admit, those brown eyes of his did have a nice sparkle to them. And he did have a way with words. And the voice he said them with…did make her feel…a little fuzzy inside.
Vanna picked up on this, and took this as an opportunity for Zahara to get out on the dating scene. She would pop up with questions about Aasim and Zahara’s feelings for him. And as annoying as those moments were, Zahara realized that Vanna had a point; she did like Aasim a little.
Finally Zahara, with Vanna’s encouragement, allowed Aasim to take her out for coffee. To Zahara’s surprise, she ended up enjoying herself and liking the idea of them as a couple. They went out a few more times. Eventually Zahara introduced him to her parents. They seemed to like him very much, though Zahara’s mother reminded Zahara not to marry him unless he agreed to give up Shia Islam and become a Sunni. Zahara even met Aasim’s parents, wealthy entrepreneurs from Queen’s Table in former Britain who seemed nice to Zahara, though she had a feeling that they thought their son was going through some sort of rebellious phase by dating her.
On one date Aasim took her to Red Baron Park, a new amusement park that Zahara had wanted to see for ages. Near the end of the day Aasim and Zahara decided to ride the Dragon’s Scale, the largest ride in the park. As the car began to move up the conveyer belt, Zahara squeezed Aasim’s hand hard.
“You alright?” he asked.
“We’re…kinda high up.” said Zahara. “I get nervous with heights.”
“I didn’t know you were afraid of heights.” he said.
“I’m not afraid of heights, I’m just nervous around them.” Zahara corrected. “And I’m hardly ever this high up, let alone with other people.”
“Well, I got a trick that can get your mind off of the heights.” said Aasim.
“What’s that?” Zahara started, but then Aasim pressed his lips against hers; gently he placed his hand on her cheek, his fingers caught in her hair. As the car went over the hill and down the tracks, Zahara closed her eyes, oblivious to the world screaming past her; the only thrill she was interested in was in the car with her.
Those were good times: high school, slowly becoming a woman, hanging out with Vanna and the others, going on dates with Aasim, attending the mosque with her parents and feeling spiritually uplifted. The city where a scared little girl had first felt alienation and shame had become a home that wrapped around her and gave her comfort. If life had gone on uninterrupted, she would’ve graduated from high school, gone to one of the numerous colleges in New York and gotten married, maybe to Aasim if he could accept that Abu Bakr was the first caliph after Muhammad.
Things did not go as planned, though; Zahara’s father’s firm had not been getting a lot of business lately and they had started to downsize. And even though Zahara’s father had been employed there for nearly eight years, done exceptionally well, and had seniority over other members, he had been the first to be cut from the payroll.
“They let you go because you follow Allah!” Aaliyah had said with horror when she had heard the news. Her hands were balled into fists and tears were forming at the edges of her eyes. “You have to sue them, Emir. Surely you can cite discrimination, this city still uses the old American system, and you can get damages—”
“And the city of New York is even more flawed than the country it used to belong to.” Emir cut in. “The hate against Muslims started in this city, Aaliyah. There are many who still remember September 11 and the beginning of the jihads. We were lucky enough to be allowed to live in this city so long.
“Besides, it wasn’t my boss’s choice to fire me. He just feared an affirmative action suit from one of the new employees if I didn’t get chopped off. But he made a deal with me: if I went quietly—and I intend to—he’ll call an old friend of his in Reborn City, who’ll let me become his company’s lawyer.”
Aaliyah gasped loudly. “Reborn City!” she repeated. “That gambling town? There are no Muslims in that town. Who would go to live in that place? It’s full of infidels, gamblers and whores and Allah only knows what else! You seriously want us to live there—?”
“I’ve already bought us a house on the south side of the city.” Emir said, raising his voice a little. Aaliyah looked at him as if she couldn’t believe he had shouted; Zahara’s father caught the expression, cleared his throat and said in a more even voice, “I’ve also let our landlord know that we’ll be leaving after Zahara’s school lets out for the summer. I have all the paperwork for Zahara’s enrollment at a private school for girls. It’s as good as done.”
“So we’re…” Zahara’s mother looked like she was about to choke on what she was about to say. “We’re really moving?”
Emir nodded sadly. “Yes.” he said, choking back a sob. It was at this time Zahara’s parents noticed their daughter standing in the doorway of the kitchen, tears rolling down her cheeks and staining the collar of her shirt.
Throughout the entire discussion Zahara had been beside the kitchen door where she couldn’t be seen, eavesdropping on her parents as she’d done so many times before. This was the first time that she had revealed her presence though.
“Father,” Zahara said in Arabic, trying to keep her voice even. “Please say it’s not true. I don’t want to leave New York. It’s my home. Please…you can’t do this.”
Zahara’s father and mother just stared at their daughter for a moment, as if they’d never seen her before in their life. Then Zahara’s father lifted himself from his chair and walked to Zahara. “I’m sorry, my princess.” said Emir, using a nickname for Zahara he hadn’t used since she was a little girl. “But it’s already said and done—”
“No!” Zahara cried, collapsing into her father’s arms and sobbing. “It just can’t be!” Zahara cried for a good long while and then silently trudged off to bed without dinner, undressing silently and slipping into her bed without a word. Hours later her parents climbed into their bed in the room next door, trying to keep their voices shushed. Even so, Zahara could still hear them speaking in Arabic.
“…haps you could do something, Emir. Surely there’s some way for us to stay here for Zahara’s sake.”
“It doesn’t matter, Aaliyah.” Zahara’s father replied. “When Zahara graduates next summer, she can apply to a school here in New York. I’ll try and find ways to move back home in the meantime. I’m not happy about moving to our new home, either, but we’ll live with it. Who knows? We may only live there for a few short years.”
Deep inside, Zahara felt her heart break. Maybe it was because she felt horrible at the thought of being separated from New York for even a short year, but it felt more like…like they might never move back to New York together again.
Zahara pushed the thought away. It was a stupid thought, brought on by grief and shock. Yet the feeling persisted and Zahara fell asleep soon after with a troubled mind.
When she broke the news to her friends and Aasim at school the next day, Aasim and Simon mouths hung open in shock, while Vanna and Amber were hugging Zahara as if they were never going to let her go. Magic was leaning on Simon, crying into his shoulder. Seeing this made Zahara realize how much she depended on her friends and how much she’d miss them and how much they’d miss her. Did her parents really expect Zahara to move away from the only friends she’d ever known and try to make friends with people who might not even be interested in being friends with her?
And could she really live a life in Reborn City? For all Zahara knew the situation for Muslims in Reborn City was worse than that of New York.
This last thought prompted Zahara to later go to the library to learn about Reborn City. As much as she hated doing it—it felt like Zahara was accepting the move—she went online and learned a little bit about the city that would become the Bakurs’ new home.
What she learned was dispiriting: Reborn City had been founded four years after the Third World War by the Parthenon Company, a military contractor that went into the entertainment business in the spirit of disarmament after the war. Apparently the Parthenon Company had founded or set up branches in many cities whose greatest sources of income were in the entertainment business, from Seattle-2 and its movie studios to Renaissance and its year-round carnival atmosphere. And Reborn City was the first of these entertainment metropolises.
Curious, Zahara opened a new tab and typed “parthenon” into the search engine. A list of possible search terms appeared under the search-space before Zahara had even finished typing. At the top, above “parthenon company,” and even “parthenon, athens,” was “parthenon conspiracies.” Zahara raised an eyebrow, not sure what she would find. The search brought up thousands of links to blogs and even a few news articles, each advertising Parthenon’s guilt in some matter or another. All but a few of the links made mention of “ongoing experiments.” Clicking on several, Zahara saw that many people on the anonymous Web believed that before the war Parthenon had been developing genetically modified humans as super soldiers for the United States Army. These same people claimed that Parthenon had never really gotten out of the war business, they had just used Reborn City and other entertainment cities as a source of revenue for further experimentation on unwilling test subjects.
And they say that Muslims are heartless, Zahara thought, rolling her eyes. We’d never experiment on humans…or gossip about people who might do that. Returning to her research on Reborn City, Zahara learned that Reborn City had been created to replace the war-ravaged Las Vegas and Reno and other gambling towns that had suffered the effects of war in the former state of Nevada.
The city also was shaped liked a clock, with the center zone, Central Reborn, being devoted to the major businesses and the home of Parthenon’s worldwide headquarters. The other four sectors—North, South, East, and West Reborn—were residential neighborhoods, with North Reborn home to high-income families. As one went farther clockwise through the city, one saw the homes belonging to lower and lower income families. Zahara’s family would be living in a sad neighborhood with working-class families and college students who liked to party often in Central Reborn. Perfect, Zahara thought with a huff.
Not only that, but many of the major businesses in Reborn City were casinos in rotating skyscrapers that also came with bars, strip clubs and hotels, with a few other companies and corporations here and there. Even worse, the major money-pullers were owned and operated by Parthenon, giving it a vice-like grip on commerce. The crime rates in Reborn City were also higher than in New York, especially in the projects of West Reborn, where gang violence was common. And there wasn’t a thing she could find about Muslims in Reborn City. She typed into the search engine at least five different combinations of search terms before giving up. Most of the links were bloggers musing on the lack of Muslims in Reborn or being glad there weren’t any “goddamn terrorists around.”
None of these things appealed to her at all.
Zahara prayed to Allah for intervention of some sort, but nothing came of it. She hung out with Aasim and her friends, visiting her favorite places and saying goodbye to them for the last time, at least until she could come back. Finally Zahara took her final exams and prepared to leave for Reborn City.
At the airport, after numerous security checks and questions from security guards to make sure the Bakurs weren’t planning on blowing up their plane, Zahara said goodbye to her friends. Vanna and the girls cried, Simon gave her a quick hug, and Aasim gave her a long, meaningful squeeze, asking her to call him when she could. Zahara cried as she boarded the plane, looking out the window longingly as New York disappeared and the ground beneath them became populated with forests and mountains.
The first two weeks in Reborn City were just like they had been in New York, unpacking and getting familiar with the new home. However unlike then Zahara didn’t feel anxiety and fear about school starting but a resigned pessimism that told her things were only going to get worse. The house they lived in felt more cramped than their old apartment and the electricity and heat didn’t work very well. One of their next-door neighbors was a loud old woman who drank constantly and yelled at Zahara to accept Jesus or go to hell whenever Zahara stepped outside. On the other side was a college student who had a nose ring and brought home women who looked like they hadn’t bathed for days, and stared creepily at Zahara and Aaliyah whenever he saw them.
And although they didn’t have a language barrier in a city where English and Spanish were the language of choice, Zahara almost wished she had to deal with another language: all over the neighborhood were advertisements for casinos and flyers for jobs at clubs. Zahara tried to go to a bookstore and found very little to read besides college textbooks and porn. When asked how long it would take to order a book from another city, the clerk behind the desk just scratched his head and said it would probably take a month, and eighty dollars to do so. Zahara had left saying she’d think about it.
Venturing into Central Reborn, Zahara and her family had only the prospect of casinos, strip clubs, and strange theater productions for entertainment. The only place they could go were the movies, where the popcorn tasted terrible and the staff sneered at the Bakurs whenever they came. Even at Zahara’s father’s new workplace, things were far from welcoming; although Emir’s new boss had taken Zahara’s father on, he’d only done it as a favor to a friend, and did not seem to like Emir very much. The first day there most people looked at Emir either in fear or anger and no one talked to him.
Zahara hoped that by the time school rolled around she might have someone to talk to. Emir worked hard and came home every day with complaints and urging them all to leave a house no one particularly liked being in. Aaliyah missed praying and teaching at a mosque and craved contact from anyone who would give her a civil word. And every day they all felt a little more lonely and depressed.
But then today, Emir had suggested they go out to eat. Not seeing any reason not to, they had piled into the car and had headed for the highway. But as Emir was preparing to take an exit, Zahara felt a sense of foreboding. She wanted to shout at her father, to tell him not to take that exit, down that ramp was only a slow, painful death—
There was only darkness. And a deep, whooshing sound.