The masjid wasn’t even close to finished, but our fathers were starting from the top and were building their way down.
In June, days after the Supreme Court lifted legal blocks on President Trump’s Muslim Ban save those with “bona fide relationships” to the United States, we asked writers to imagine creative openings and counter narratives as to what a bona fide relationship might be. Trump’s latest iteration of the travel ban goes into effect October 18, and in the lead up to that day, we are publishing a series of stories and poems on The Margins that create new narratives and futures in response to the Muslim Ban. This work of short fiction is the latest in our series. Read more and follow along here.
My father owned a butcher shop called Corona Halal Meats on the corner of 99th and National Street in Queens. Before it was a Halal meat store, it had been an Italian butcher shop, and even though my father didn’t hang sausages and pigs’ heads out front, the meaning was the same. Dead animals arrived there to be cut, sold, and eaten.
It was fine real estate for religion on National Street. A Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom, an Episcopalian church, and our new masjid were crammed next to each other, wall to wall, skin to skin. If you crossed the street, there was a Christian store selling crucifixes and paintings of women and men in Hell burning. The sinners looked like all of us in Corona, all different shades of olive and dark. The sinners looked like all of us, but I always thought in our agony, we looked like Jesus.
It was only right then that there should be a place for animal sacrifice as well. There could have been people slaughtering goats on that very spot for centuries. Men might have gathered there, talked and joked, the smell of blood and flesh making their jokes funnier, just like it did in the Gosht Dukan.
My mother always gave me tea to take to the store around four o’clock. It was one of my favorite things to do because I loved visiting my father. In this country, with so few people to love, he always showered me with affection until even my mother and neighbors said I would get spoiled.
On the front door of the Gosht Dukan there was a dirty sign that said: OPEN and another that said: OUT FOR PRAYER. A bell rang when I entered. My father looked up and smiled, a smile as large as an onion rack. He was standing at the back by the register with two uncles: Azim, who was Saima’s youngest uncle, and Yaqeen Uncle who worked as a mechanic in the gas station across the street. Yaqueen Uncle always came at this time because he knew he would get free tea. He was sitting in one of the collapsible chairs my father had especially for him.
“Shafiq Saab!” Yaqeen Uncle tossed a bag of pistachios at my father. It landed on the counter.
I knew he wasn’t going to pay for it. Azim looked to see if it was okay, but my father didn’t hesitate. He opened the bag of pistachios and brought out a plate for the shells. My father took the kettle from me, and Azim pulled a bag of Styrofoam cups from the shelf. My father poured full cups for Yaqeen Uncle and then Azim. There was only half a cup left for my father at the end. Only I noticed this. The uncles didn’t.
Yaqeen Uncle started on one of his favorite subjects: Comparative Religion. “The Yuhovah’s Witnesses came to the Garage!” Bits of pistachio fell out of his mouth. Some of the shells missed and fell to the floor.
Azim got out the broom to sweep them up. “Why are they called that? Did they witness something?”
My father burst into laughter. He laughed the same way he sneezed, suddenly like fireworks. Still smiling, he brought out the sugar, a half-pound bag torn open at the top. It had a hot-pink label and a plastic spoon with tea-soaked sugar crusted along the edge. He reached under the counter and brought out a pamphlet that said “Awake!”
“They gave it to me when they came to the Gosht Dukan. I tried to give them my Quran, but they wouldn’t take it.”
Azim and Yaqeen Uncle laughed, imagining my father turning the tables on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I giggled too. I was usually quiet around uncles, happy just to be near my father, a little planet circling about. But this time I said, “They don’t celebrate Christmas.” My father looked at me and smiled.
Yaqeen Uncle grabbed the spoon and loaded his cup full of sugar, then took a loud slurp from his chai. “This Christmas, I finally understand, but Easter—”
“I know Easter,” my father said. “Easter is when Jesus goes upstate.”
We all looked at him. My father’s English was sometimes a little mixed.
“Upstate, kaisey? Bus pey?” Yaqeen Uncle smiled.
My father pointed his chai cup in the air. “Upstairs, upstairs.”
“Upstairs, acha,” and they both started laughing.
Azim, who had only been in the country for a few months, smiled at them, then asked all serious, “But what do eggs have to do with it?”
My father and Yaqueen uncle were laughing so hard, they didn’t hear the door chime and Hafiz Saab walk in. My father looked up, and everyone quieted down and said salaam.
Hafiz Saab was our imam. Before he came to Corona, us children ran wild on the streets, but after he came, we were rounded up and sent to the basement of the masjid to learn the Qur’an. Hafiz Saab had just come from Pakistan, but he might as well have come from a different planet, he was so strange to us. But to our parents, looking at him reminded them of home. The men slapped him on the back and followed him around like lost puppies. The women hid behind doors and giggled whenever he passed.
“Here’s Hafiz Saab. Ask him.” Yaqeen Uncle got up and offered his chair.
Azim, who hadn’t touched his chai yet, handed it over. “Hafiz Saab, what is it that the Yuhovah’s witness?”
Hafiz Saab’s lips puckered. He said in Punjabi, “Don’t make yourself crazy thinking about these things. Learn a little bit about Islam, why don’t you?”
Everyone looked down guilty. “Hahn, hahn, yih to heyh.” That is what they paid Hafiz Saab for, to keep them in line.
He sipped on his chai. “Ek chicken kaat key dey do.”
My father went into the back and sifted through the parts of chicken to give Hafiz Saab his favorite pieces: four legs, three necks, no breasts. He threw these into a plastic bag. Blood clung to the inside edges.
Hafiz Saab took the bag of chicken, wet and floppy. He made a half-gesture to look in his pocket. He’d started a new fashion among the uncles, a kameez on top and pants on the bottom. That way, they could still look Pakistani, but have pockets for all the things necessary to carry in this new country: keys, identification cards, money. All the men started to dress like Hafiz Saab, all except Azim. He wore jeans and shiny, polyester shirts.
After coming up empty-handed, Hafiz Saab looked at my father. “Write it in The Book.” My father didn’t hesitate. He pulled out The Book. For Pakistanis in Corona, there were two books. One was the Quran and the other was where my father fed everyone in the community for free. If my mother ever found out about The Book, she would go crazy. What everyone owed was written down in there.
At first, people only owed small amounts, but when they realized my father never asked them for payment, the sums got larger and the items went from packs of roti to burlap sacks of flour. From half a chicken to a whole goat. It was all written at first in my father’s flowing handwriting, but now it was written in Azim’s. Even though it was hard to tell the difference. To me, all men from Pakistan had the same handwriting.
“Chalo, it’s time for namaz.” Hafiz Saab took one last long sip and put his cup down on a shelf next to the counter. He didn’t bother to throw it in the garbage. Even though it was right next to his feet.
I drifted to the back of the store, touching the bags of all the different kinds of daal by color. My father called me back to the front. “Do you want to come with me?”
I nodded excitedly and everyone laughed. The masjid had just gotten speakers, and today Hafiz Saab was going to give the azans so the whole neighborhood could hear. Our fathers had been slowly building the masjid for years, brick by brick. The masjid wasn’t even close to finished, but our fathers were starting from the top and were building their way down.
“Azim, go on ahead,” my father said.
The uncles and Hafiz Saab left. I waited while my father threw away the cups and put the towel back on the tea kettle, then put it where the mice couldn’t reach. He locked the door and turned the sign to OUT TO PRAYER. We walked to the masjid together, quiet, the way we always were when we were alone.
It was Maghrib time and the light was dimming. The sky was turning from blue to orange to pink. We heard Hafiz Saab even before we got there. I didn’t know his voice could sound like that, like a man’s voice turning back into a boy’s. He recited into the air, “Allah ho Akbar . . . Allah ho Akbar . . . .”
The azan came through over the loudspeakers. Men and women everywhere came out on the street. Everyone in the neighborhood tilted their heads and listened. Out of basement apartments and sixth-floor walk-ups, Muslim men started walking toward the sound, pulling their topis out of the backseats of their pockets.
The sun went down, and the clouds bent low over the buildings. I stood in front of the masjid and held my father’s hand. The light was turning pink and darkening, and I saw my father was weeping as a sleepy blue light settled on everything.
A version of Corona Halal Meats appeared in Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and is forthcoming in Corona: Stories of a Queens Girlhood (Tor/Macmillan 2019).
The Bona Fide Relationships Portfolio was published with support from the David Rockefeller Fund and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.