Spring/Summer 2006, Volume 22.3
Tawfiq's mother Salma wakes up before first light as always. Tawfiq's children, Uzma, twelve, and Asma, eight, will be up in a couple of hours for school. Salma is careful not to make noise as she washes her hands and feet during wudu in the bathroom and walks downstairs to the patio with red velvet prayer rug in hand to offer fajr prayers.
Salma's retired husband Sikander, sixty-five and a walking encyclopedia of hypochondriac's complaints, neither joins Salma in her five daily prayers nor reproves her, telling the family that long ago Allah has "settled his case." Taking her cue from Sikander, Salma never pressures Tawfiq and his wife and children to pray either.
As long as Tawfiq remains an honest businessman, not cutting corners as he produces spare parts at his Whittier factory for fighter jets acquired by the Department of Defense, and as long as Uzma and Asma keep making good grades, it's all a doting mother and grandmother can ask for.
The daily miracle of the Southern California sunrise, as half the sky blooms with cool orange hues, making you think of a lazy painter at ease with the most precious paints in his palette, prompts spontaneous gratitude in Salma. She doesn't want to be reminded at such moments of her thinning and whitening hair, of her own numerous aches and pains. Dawn comes with leisureliness and consolation in this corner of the world, unlike the abruptness with which the sky harshly changes color and the earth becomes warm in the sunrises Salma has been used to seeing in Karachi, and before that in her native Ahmedabad.
Tawfiq's sprawling five bedroom house in the foothills at San Dimas, where Salma and Sikander have now lived for nearly ten years, keeps astonishing her with the minimal amount of cleaning effort it requires. This is just as well because Tawfiq's wife Firdaus is a former philosophy student, an Iranian woman eight years younger than he, who until recently has indulged in pie-in-the-sky plots of vast new business enterprises that will make work unnecessary for their future generations, but who doesn't so much as pick up after Uzma and Asma finish breakfast.
It's Firdaus who most irks and draws Salma. Firdaus has heavy breasts, which she usually keeps unsheathed by bras under her flimsy blouses. Her plumpness conveys the impression of perpetual pregnancy.
Salma has read enough heart-wrenching short stories by Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Haider, and other feminist writers in Urdu to understand the usual mother-in-law resentments; but she can't quite bring herself to forgive Firdaus her cheapness: how she drives from store to store to save pennies on groceries, even as she sends thousands of dollars to charities every time there's an earthquake in some poor country; how she teaches Uzma and Asma to try to have meals and sleepovers at friends' homes rather than inviting them over, which would put additional strain on the maid; and how she comes up with ludicrous and inappropriate quotations from Hafez and Rumi to batter down Tawfiq's logical arguments about this or that practical matter at the dining table.
Firdaus calls Salma "Amma," conversing with her in the nearly fluent Urdu she's picked up after fourteen years with Tawfiq, and always waits for her to start eating before she begins, but Salma still suspects that bitterness is just under the surface. She won't be surprised if any day now Firdaus complains about the amount of water Salma can't help spilling over the bathroom floor as she performs wudu.
In Salma's family, ambition comes in spurts. Sikander, after having made imitation Baroque French furniture for Karachi's elite for thirty years, now shows no interest in Tawfiq's business; although Salma encourages him to stay busy by helping out with the accounting, if nothing else. She firmly believes that the brain withers from disuse. Sikander has lost interest in politics too, just when buried hostilities have come to the surface, and the peoples of the world are at each others' throats.
Once Sikander says at dinner—one of Firdaus's luscious kebab and kufte affairs—"Nostradamus predicted the collapse of the twin towers in the world's leading city." This is a superstitious bend Salma doesn't like.
Firdaus says, "Abba, then what does Nostradamus say about long-bearded men ruling the world, and daughters reaching puberty at nine and ten?"
Sikander is too embarrassed to reply, being neutral about the rule of the ayatollahs in Iran, seeing both positive and negative sides to it, while for Firdaus it is a calumny that in liberal Iran, mullahs should put women behind the chador and send little boys to die in trench warfare. And Sikander doesn't go near the puberty question.
Salma can't exactly disagree with Firdaus's logic on these issues, but it's her manner of putting herself in the forefront, blurting out the sad, disagreeable truth, that she can't stand.
Salma is disconcerted that after loudly making love with Tawfiq, Firdaus goes about the house without having taken a shower or washed herself, showing not the least embarrassment about her wet, tousled hair, and the bite marks over her arms and legs.
Out on the patio this morning, Salma raises her hands to Allah in prayer, ending with an appeal for a secure homeland for the Palestinians, a dua that had come to her as if in a vision, after witnessing one of the most disturbing CNN videos of the mistreatment of Palestinian boys at the hands of Israeli soldiers. She understands that Tawfiq's prosperity depends on war between nations remaining a fact of life, but this is a link that she isn't able to pursue to its end.
Next door, she can hear the sounds of Arlene, the redheaded fifty-five-year-old manic divorcée who speeds around the neighborhood in her red Porsche, getting a boisterous early start on her gardening.
Arlene had asked Salma to teach her a few words of Urdu—"kya haal hai," "theek hai," "achha, hum chaltey hain"—but then lost all interest in Salma and Sikander. That was almost a decade ago. Firdaus says that Arlene is the "neighborhood slut," with an eye out for every man, including Tawfiq, while Tawfiq always defends Arlene, saying that she's never gotten over the loss of her much older husband, a decent man who had been one of the pioneers of the personal computer. Firdaus has trained Uzma and Asma to be wary of Arlene, despite Arlene remembering both girls' birthdays without fail, and making expensive presents. Salma is pleased that Asma and her lively friends don't make up derisory songs rhyming with Arlene's name, as they sometimes do with the other neighbors.
Salma wishes that her concentration wouldn't wander so much during prayer. She hopes Allah will forgive her for this weakness. It's less excusable because her progeny seem to have matters under control. It isn't as if she has to worry about livelihood, survival, or security in any way. Salma and Sikander's decade of immigrant life in Southern California has been nearly incident free, which is a blessing after the riots, strikes, killings, and constant turmoil in Pakistan. Tawfiq's twenty-five years here have been marked by one success after another, the first year at Cal State Fullerton being the only time he needed his father's help. Arlene once commented on the ease with which Salma and Sikander had "adjusted" to life in America, like "ducks taking to water," noting that some of her Mexican friends had trouble with the basics after decades in the country.
Salma folds up the prayer rug and faces the screen door, unwilling yet to enter the fray of the household. At that moment, Firdaus loudly opens the door, standing face to face with her.
"The sun will burn your skin," Firdaus says. "It's been shown to be extremely detrimental to older people." Firdaus is dressed in a skimpy spring dress, out of which her broad shoulders ooze out, and against which her bottom rests heavy.
"The sun here is gentle, peaceful," Salma says. "Have you forgotten how harsh the sun is in our part of the world?"
"This is now our part of the world," says Firdaus testily, "or mine anyway. I was only in Iran until I was eight years old. One forgets. False memories are worse than no memories."
Daughter-in-law, why do you always have to be so argumentative?, Salma
wants to say, but holds her tongue. Instead, she offers to help get Uzma and
Asma ready for school, an offer Firdaus politely declines, because the girls
have to be more "self-motivated" now.
Tawfiq joins them on the patio. He's already dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt, and red paisley tie. His hair is beginning to thin, which worries Salma, although Firdaus likes to think that it lends him the right aura of gravity.
"So this is where the women of the household are plotting conspiracies against me?" Tawfiq teases, tying up plump Firdaus in a bear hug, and, Salma thinks, also pinching Firdaus's behind, although trying to keep it secret.
"Tawfiq, is your father still sleeping?" Salma asks.
"Yes," says Tawfiq, "let him. It's his golden age of retirement. He doesn't have to get up before the crack of dawn. Unlike some of us, who can't let go of the old dogmas."
"Tawfiq!" Firdaus silences her husband. "Have more respect for your mother."
Tawfiq looks uncomprehendingly at his wife, then his mother. "I think I'll skip breakfast and go to work early today." He claims that his jokes about religion are "ironic," although Salma doesn't get the point. He has turned out to be like his father in usually taking the line of least resistance. Salma wishes he would put up more of a fight against Firdaus at times.
Salma also wants Firdaus to say to Tawfiq, No, eat before you go, but she doesn't. When he leaves, Salma and Firdaus don't know what to say to each other.
Salma still can't make up her mind about Firdaus. In Uzma and Asma, she doesn't see these conflicting signals, probably because the girls know only to be direct when they communicate. Americans are simple-minded and simple-hearted, but this can almost be a virtue, especially when it comes to families solving their own problems.
"I guess Arlene didn't get laid last night," Firdaus says about the ruckus next door, in a comment meant to provoke Salma. Salma looks down. Then switching subjects, Firdaus says, "The girls should be up by themselves. I shouldn't have to go through with the song and dance every morning."
* * *
"Come quick!" says Firdaus, shouting to rouse Tawfiq from the kitchen the following Saturday afternoon. He has been nibbling at salad olovieh, and studying an intricate golf manual for hours. "On CNN. They're showing a Pakistani businessman in handcuffs. The owner of a high-tech firm, in Orange County."
Tawfiq enters the living room reluctantly. "All this sensationalism, I tell you I don't care about it." Since the episode at fajr prayers, he's been irritable. This inability to let go of little flare-ups is a new trait. Tawfiq used to be like his father in quickly letting go of grudges. If Firdaus and Tawfiq don't watch out, Uzma and Asma will grow up to be sourpusses, unable to hold any man's attention for long.
Firdaus is undeterred by Tawfiq's disinterest. "Abba," she addresses Sikander, who is watching the large-screen television with glazed eyes, "don't you think Tawfiq should care? Who's next? This man on TV looks respectable enough. First they come for the Jews, then they come for the priests, then they come for the communists, and then for me. That old story." Firdaus was proud of her education at Cal State Fullerton.
Sikander stirs himself. "Tawfiq's been here for twenty-five years. A solid quarter-century. I feel like a newcomer still. He knows what's best."
"There you go," Tawfiq says pettily.
"But do you know the man?" Firdaus insists. "You must know him. They say he made aircraft spare parts for the DoD. Sounds suspiciously like the man of this household."
Salma wants to step in to silence Firdaus's impetuosity. But another side of her admires Firdaus's practical side. It's better to be anxious than to daydream.
Tawfiq hasn't replied to Firdaus's question. Firdaus says again, "So do you know the man?"
"Yeah, I know him," Tawfiq says sullenly. "It's a small community, after all. We all know each other."
"Daddy, did you notice his beard is snow-white but his hair is jet-black?" says Uzma, who with Asma has joined the adult audience of the CNN proceedings. "That makes him look so odd."
"That's because he forgot to color his beard," says Asma.
"No, he didn't," says Uzma.
"Did too," says Asma.
"So is he a bad guy?" Firdaus asks.
"Bad?" Tawfiq says. "How could he be bad—how could any of us be bad—when we serve our country by making essential military parts at the cheapest cost, without having the work outsourced to desperate and untrustworthy Asian countries?"
"Must you always be sarcastic?" Firdaus says.
"It's better to be safe than sorry," Sikander says. "Now why don't we let Tawfiq make that judgment? Is anything at stake for this family?"
"Do we even know the facts in the case?" Tawfiq says. "Why is this man being arrested? Maybe it's a mistake. They'll probably let him go by the end of the day. Of course, his reputation will have been ruined for good. That's too bad."
"The facts in the case," says Firdaus, "since you haven't been paying attention, are that he's being charged with assisting terrorists, of making illegal purchases and sales."
"Bah!" says Tawfiq. "Asim! Poor Asim, obsessed with his golf handicap and impressing his new blonde wife, assisting terrorists! He'd be scared to death if he saw one in full regalia. Full beard and nasty smell and all."
"Tawfiq, your father has a beard," Salma says.
"Abba's beard is different," Tawfiq says.
"And weren't you his golf buddy?" Firdaus says.
"Was?" says Tawfiq. "Am."
"You're choosing to be blind," says Firdaus, "deaf and dumb, and blind." She gets up in a huff and leaves for her room.
"I think I'll take the girls for a walk," Tawfiq says, but doesn't move from his awkward perch on a stool in front of the television.
"I want to make Grandpa my horse," Asma says, climbing on Sikander's back. "Grandpa, ride around the house on your hands and knees, like Daddy used to."
"You mean hooves, silly," Uzma says.
"Hands and knees," says Asma.
"Leave him alone," says Tawfiq.
Now Tawfiq seems to be watching the television with interest. Asim's neighbors are aghast. The scared employees at his company refuse to comment. A picture of Asim when he was an engineering student at UC Irvine, with a short beard, is shown over and over.
Taking the restless girls out for walks is a duty Sikander likes to perform, but Tawfiq has also been spending unusual amounts of time at home, especially on weekends. It used to be that his calendar was fully occupied by social events when he wasn't putting in twelve-hour days at the factory. Now, even though the war on terrorism is picking up, which should be a boon to companies like his, for some reason business hasn't kept pace with the theoretically ideal conditions.
A little while goes by, and Firdaus, changed into a miniskirt that shows off her fleshy legs and full behind, comes stamping down the stairs. "Uzma, Asma, let's go."
Salma makes a great effort to detach herself from the sullenness still painting Tawfiq's face—now he can't even take his little girls out for a walk, because their mother has preempted him—and the apathy coating Sikander's. "Firdaus, can I come with you? Please?" Salma says, with uncharacteristic humility.
Firdaus isn't sure what to say. She's already slipped the SUV keys in her shiny pink purse. "Come, Amma, come," she says. "It'll be a girls' night out."
Salma doesn't bother changing out of her blue shalwar kameez and stringy dupatta for the outing. She slips into her comfortable Bata slippers bought years ago. Tawfiq looks for all the world like a lost boy as they leave the house. Salma doesn't say anything to try to perk him up.
"Where are we going?" Asma says.
"I told you, ice cream at Bernarducci's," Firdaus says. "And we can shop on Melrose afterward."
"I want to watch The Simpsons," Asma says.
"The Simpsons is not on tonight," Uzma says.
"Is too," says Asma.
"I hate that show," says Uzma. "Apu. Like there are any Indians who really talk like that."
"Be quiet," says Firdaus. After a moment of thought, she says, "How come you don't want to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer—or something less adult? How come you don't watch cartoons on Saturdays?"
"Mommy," Asma says, "The Simpsons is a cartoon show."
"It's an animated show for grown-ups," says Uzma.
"No more Simpsons," says Firdaus.
A wise parent must exercise authority judiciously, Salma thinks, or else rebellion is guaranteed.
"Tawfiq wasn't always like this," Firdaus says when they're well on their way.
She's making good speed on the 210 and then the 10. Salma used to be afraid of the careening turns Firdaus makes along sharply bending Southern California roads, but now her heart refuses to flutter when Firdaus barrels her way blindly up a hill or avoids falling into a ravine by mere inches.
"Tawfiq loves you," Salma says simply.
"Of course he does," says Firdaus. "Who else would love him like I do?"
Salma is uncomfortable with this line of thought. If she says something on behalf of Tawfiq, she alienates Firdaus. "Go easy on him," she says.
Uzma and Asma, in the backseat of the SUV, have some verbal game going on, the outcome of which will decide which of them gets to have the larger sundae at the exclusive ice- cream parlor in West Hollywood, whose European name Salma can never remember how to pronounce.
"These Indian kids," says Firdaus, "always winning the spelling bees. Poor Americans, can't spell their own language."
"I bet no one in my class can spell Tehran," says Uzma.
"I can spell I-ran," says Asma. Then she adds, "I ran so hard I fell on Tehran," making it sound like "terrain."
"Very smart," says Firdaus, "and very unnecessary."
Both girls, especially Uzma with her blondish hair and fragile features, look vulnerable to Salma. She feels helpless in the matter. They might grow up to be the type of women men find easy to take advantage of. And that swimsuit of Uzma's, which leaves nothing to the imagination, has got to go. If only she felt comfortable enough to talk to Firdaus about this. The girls' mother doesn't want them to watch that nonsensical animated show, but lets Uzma put on makeup and take boys' calls, even if they only claim to want to talk about homework and assignments.
* * *
Over the next few weeks, several more of Tawfiq's friends in the business are arrested. Friday afternoons are usually when these events occur. The location is always some spotless business park with the name of the company never displayed on the building, in a city like Anaheim or Riverside, the on-air reporter always a breathless buxom blonde having difficulty pronouncing the names of the principals, and the parade of stunned employees and associates always so dull and colorless that they look like Talmudic scholars, not traitors and assassins.
Now the family gathers more seriously around television. No one can feign disinterest any longer.
"Did you notice how they fit the same profile?" Firdaus asks.
"Profile?" says Tawfiq, as if having trouble matching this crime-jargon word with the banality of his profession.
"South Asian male in his mid to late forties. The man has kept his Muslim name, even if it's a tongue-twister like Muzammil or Inzimam, rather than switch to Mo or Sam. He goes to Friday prayers at the Garden Grove mosque or the one downtown. He has never been known to have zealous sympathies before. His business partners are white-bread Americans so naive and trusting that they can't tell Iraq from Iran. He used to have business dealings with Kuwait or Abu Dhabi or some other Arab country back when it was okay to do so. He gave money to charities for Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir." Firdaus pauses for effect. "All of which reminds you of whom?"
"I do not go to the Garden Grove or any mosque," Tawfiq says. "And you leave out the crucial facts in the government's case. These men were all making highly sensitive materials. Technology that's banned for export, especially to countries on the watch list."
"Everything's sensitive when you're working for the DoD."
"Toilet seats? Wrenches?"
"You do not make toilet seats."
Sikander has been unnaturally quiet, even for him, in recent days. "It wouldn't hurt to be cautious," he now announces. "In the interest of pragmatism, I'll shave off my beard."
"You'll shave off your beard?" Salma gasps. "You said it's a bigger offense to shave off a beard than not to have one in the first place."
"I can't see that my having or not having a beard affects my religious standing one way or the other. It's not as if I'm giving up praying and fasting."
"But we can't let these ignorant people change our behavior," Salma says. "Then they'll have won. Without firing a shot, without knocking on our door."
But Firdaus is quick to seize the opening. "I think Abba has exactly the right idea. Why invite trouble? Girls," she addresses Uzma and Asma, "I think it's time for you to go to your room and play."
Neither of them replies.
Asma starts playing with Sikander's beard. "Grandpa, are you going to cut it with scissors, or are you going to use a razor?"
"I don't know yet," says Sikander.
"Can I watch you do it?" says Asma. "Can we save the hair?'
"Gross," says Uzma.
"Hair keeps growing after you cut it off," Asma says. "Like a dead person's nails."
"Amma has a point," Tawfiq says. "We can't run around scared."
"Who's talking of running around scared?" Firdaus says. "These are difficult times. It's a time of war, internal and external. We're taking evasive maneuvers."
"The Shi'a always were big on taqiyya," says Tawfiq. "Dissimulation."
"Blending in can't hurt," Sikander says. "I'll stop wearing kurta pajama outside. No need to scare the shoppers at Ralphs. They're scared enough as it is by what they see on television."
"You're worried about the shoppers at Ralphs?" Salma says.
"Yes, and if I were you," says Sikander, "I wouldn't make such a display of going out on the patio every morning and evening for prayers."
"Prayers, you're after my prayers now?"
"I'm not asking you to stop praying," says Sikander. "Just do it inside."
"But the yard is so big," says Salma. "The fence is so high, no one can see."
"If they climb on a ladder, they can see you," says Sikander.
"You mean Arlene?" says Salma.
"Arlene is too busy screwing—oops, sorry girls—enjoying the scenery in the neighborhood to care one way or the other," says Firdaus.
"Arlene!" says Salma. "She's interested in this poet Agha Shahid Ali, who writes in English. I'd never heard of him, but still."
"Agha Shahid Ali is dead," Tawfiq says.
"We've wandered far from our subject," says Firdaus, "which is risk and threat assessment."
"Thank you, my dear insurance adjuster," Tawfiq says.
"Fine!" Firdaus gets up angrily. "You deal with your problems. But I'm not going to shed any tears for you when they come and handcuff you on a Friday afternoon, and your dear neighbor Arlene is your sole defender in the court of public opinion."
"What do you have against Arlene?" says Tawfiq.
"If you weren't blind, you'd see," says Firdaus.
"And while we're at it, do you want me to change my name to Timmy?" Tawfiq says.
"Ooh, Timmy Daddy," says Asma.
"I don't like that," says Uzma.
"There's a Timmy in my class, who pees when he's scared," says Asma. "He did that twice."
"What was there to be so scared of in class?" asks Firdaus.
"They were talking about Osama bin Laden," says Asma.
"Why were they talking about him in class?" asks Firdaus.
"Uzma's a sixth grader, for God's sake," says Tawfiq.
"We're talking about Asma here," says Firdaus. "Asma, why were they talking about Osama?"
"Miss Harrison showed us a video of famous Los Angeles buildings," says Asma. "She said it used to be earthquakes we worried about. Now it's man-made disasters."
"They make fun of Asma's name in class," Uzma says.
"You never told me about that, Asma," Firdaus says.
"What do they say?" Tawfiq asks.
"They call her Asma-Osama," Uzma says.
Asma acts as if she hasn't heard. "Wendy Simms said, what if the First Interstate building fell on top of the other towers? Everything toppled like dominoes?"
"You talk about these scenarios in class?" says Firdaus.
"They're old enough to grasp the facts of the new world," says Tawfiq.
"What new world?" Firdaus says.
"I'm sick of this pointless discussion," Tawfiq says. "I'm going to my study, and I don't want to be bothered."'
But Salma knows that he will be avidly watching television there. Standing outside the door, worried, she's heard the voices of the local television announcers for hours on end. Tawfiq is becoming obsessed. This isn't healthy. But what is?
Next day, the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register both carry lead articles on how the South Asian community has maneuvered its way into acquiring control of strategic spare parts production for the DoD in both Southern and Northern California. No explicit charges are ever made, but the implication is that this is something to worry about.
Again, the following week, a Pakistani is arrested and paraded like a cheap criminal, as Salma's family assembles around the television.
"Notice how they've let go of the Iranians," says Tawfiq.
"For now," says Firdaus.
"If you look for Asians hard enough, you'll find them under every rock," Tawfiq says.
"True enough, you must admire their entrepreneurial spirit," Sikander says.
"Well, sometimes their entrepreneurial spirit gets too zealous," Firdaus says. "Then the few bad apples make life difficult for all of us."
Firdaus, who spent her teenage years in Beverly Hills, is lucky enough to have had a father who escaped both the Shah and Khomeini's wrath. He died of a heart attack at an early age, having made a killing in the construction business in Southern California, and Salma has wondered why Firdaus is so quiet on the matter of her family. About the most she's been able to pick up is that Firdaus derides them as "assimilationists," which makes no sense when she thinks of the way Firdaus is raising her own daughters.
"But they haven't actually identified a single bad apple yet," Tawfiq says.
This is true. As frequently as the suspects are picked up, they are also being released on bail. If they were truly dangerous, wouldn't they be held until charges were proved? The releases are mentioned only as asides in the newspapers, unlike the front-page coverage given to the arrests.
"That doesn't mean there aren't actually bad ones out there," says Firdaus. "Not the ones they're getting, but people with bad intentions in their hearts."
"Bad intentions?" says Tawfiq. "This is taking us back to the dark ages. The rule of law is founded on action, not intent."
"I'm not defending what's going on," says Firdaus.
"But in a way you are," says Tawfiq.
"Am not," Firdaus says.
Firdaus now sounds petulant like Asma, Salma thinks.
Salma has listened to her husband, and stopped praying on the patio. She hardly ever goes out to play with the children in the yard, and if she can avoid it, skips the trips to Ralphs and the other grocery stores altogether. Although Sikander has never asked her to do so, she has chosen to switch to less alien-looking long dresses, rather than her preferred shalwar kameez. It seems to her that the joy has gone out of life in America. It used to feel so different from India and Pakistan, all that she had known for the first fifty-five years of her life. Now it's the same situation here, the same needless anxiety about the long arm of the authorities. That ill-ease is so forgotten that she cannot recall the appropriate response of the heart and mind.
She doesn't know if Arlene is still busy raising a tempest in her garden early in the morning, but lately she hasn't seen her screeching on the neighborhood streets in her red sports car. Salma misses the routine of hearing Arlene next door, even if no words used to be exchanged.
The family makes a trip to Lake Tahoe one weekend, and Salma is grateful that they've gotten away from the depressing television. It should be shut off altogether. Some of the old spiritedness among them returns on this trip away from Los Angeles, but relations among Sikander, Firdaus, and Tawfiq remain strained, as if some unnameable fear is too close now to be dismissed. Tawfiq never lets Firdaus drive when he's in the SUV, but on this trip he barely notices her hair-raising turns.
* * *
Arlene knocks on the door one morning. She's never shown up unless it's for a formal occasion.
"Hello, would you like to come in?" says Salma.
"Ah, it's you, Amma," Arlene says. "I just wanted to check in and see if everything was all right."
"Everything's fine, just wonderful, why shouldn't it be?" Salma says. "Please come in."
Arlene seats herself morosely on Tawfiq's favorite velvet chair, and stares at the television screen, which the family has taken to watching muted, without even the closed-captions on.
"Lemonade, please?" Salma asks.
"Myself, I'd like a Bloody Mary, but I guess it's too early, and the wrong household for that," Arlene says. "Where's everyone anyway?"
"Off to work. And play." Firdaus and the children are at an arts and crafts festival at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and Sikander has started going with Tawfiq to work, even if he doesn't do much except hang around the factory floor, asking questions that he doesn't have the technical know-how to comprehend.
"The girls are okay?" Arlene says, looking worried.
"Uzma and Asma are fine," says Salma.
"Good, good. You know, I've never been inside this house, and looked at it like this." Arlene admires the multiple skylights, the Afghan and Iranian bric-a-brac lining the walls, the Central Asian hookahs that Tawfiq likes to show off to his golf and business friends, and Uzma's water colors, showing camels, deserts, harsh suns, pomegranates, and other symbols of a time and place she has no direct experience of.
"I always thought Uzma had a genuine artistic bent," Arlene says. "It comes across in how she talks. You ought to nurture that."
It turns out that Arlene has been in Florida for a month, taking care of an elderly aunt with a broken hip and incipient Alzheimer's. Having no other close relatives, the dreaded nursing home is inevitable for the aunt. Salma and the rest of the family hadn't known Arlene was away for so long.
"I seem to have missed out on a lot of excitement here," Arlene says. "The arrests, the harassment, the bullshit going on in the name of fighting for security. What has this country come to! Where are people's rights, due process? Where's innocent until proven guilty?"
"Those are wonderful ideals," Salma says. "It's why people still line up outside American embassies all over the world. To have that taste of freedom."
"You know, you're not at all what I first thought you might be," Arlene admits. "No offense intended, but when I saw you in your traditional dress, and praying, I had a different idea about you. Anyway, I just came to say, if you ever need someone to talk to, in these difficult times, if I can help you in any way, please knock on my door. This neighborhood, the school board—a lot of the people are conservative assholes. Excuse my language."
"We'll let you know if we need any help."
"And please give my loving regards to Tawfiq," Arlene says. "What a dear, sweet man. A model for his community, a credit to the Pakistani race. Just what we need, a hardworking, innocent man like him, to smash the nasty stereotypes. The media in this country is so one-sided. They're assholes."
After Arlene's visit, Salma worries more about the girls than she has before. She looks at Uzma's naive paintings in a different light. She wonders if there isn't a guilt-stricken side to them that she hasn't noticed.
Later that summer, Tawfiq comes home in the early afternoon one day, which he never does. The family is assembled for lunch.
"I got a call from the FBI today," Tawfiq blurts out from the door.
A hushed silence descends on the household.
Sikander, who hasn't gone to work because of a cold, stops coughing, and assumes a glassy expression. Firdaus starts chewing her nails, a habit Uzma chides her about.
"The FBI," Tawfiq repeats, as he sits down at the dining table.
The tasty lamb kuftes, always Firdaus' specialty, steam in their plates, making Salma nauseous.
"Girls, go to your rooms," Firdaus says sedately.
"No, they need to stay and listen," Tawfiq says.
"Daddy, the FBI only goes after drug dealers," Asma says.
"Be quiet," Uzma silences her sister.
"So they were nice and polite," Tawfiq explains, "the three agents who talked to me one after the other, framing the call in reassuring terms."
"They've acquired manners," Firdaus says.
"We want to compliment you on the great work you do, and appreciate your strong roots in the community, they said. Community, my foot. I'm at the golf course. Do you see me doing any community work? They said, because of who you are, your work and ethnicity—this is not racial profiling, we want to assure you, this is just a targeted, preventive strategy—if you notice anything suspicious, please call this number. We're on your side one hundred percent, and wish to avoid any acts of discrimination, prejudice, hate crimes, etc."
"Arey," Sikander says with relief, "that's all? This sounds wonderful. They're going out of their way to put our fears at rest."
Firdaus looks at Sikander with undisguised contempt, the first time she's done that, and Salma wishes she herself were from a generation who could do the same. Instead, she looks down at the revolting kuftes, wondering why Sikander has gone soft in the head again, after his short burst of pragmatic enthusiasm when he shaved off the beard and switched entirely to Western clothing.
"If they make fun of your name again at school," Uzma tells Asma, "you can now go to the FBI. They're on our side." Uzma claps slowly, mockingly, then walks out to the patio.
Asma calls after her, "They care only about drug dealers."
"I think it's time the girls had a dose of their own culture," Firdaus says, shocking everyone by this assertion.
Even Tawfiq, enveloped in worry, peeks out of his shell enough to exclaim, "Culture! You're the one who's always insisted they should know nothing of the language, the culture, the tradition, other than what they pick up in the normal course of things in school."
"Well, they're picking up the wrong things in school," Firdaus says. "They need to know. Their race, where they come from. We carry the genes of a civilization thousands of years old."
"When European man was living in caves, barbaric, unlettered, Persians had a fine civilization going, with arts and music and theater," Tawfiq says sarcastically.
"Exactly," says Firdaus.
"Mommy, did the Ayatollah have four wives? One of them nine years old?" Asma asks, taking her place in Firdaus's lap, and playing with her fleshy chin.
"Who told you that?" Firdaus says.
"An Iranian boy at school, Afsar," Asma says. "He's so dumb he
held back a grade."
"How come I don't know about Afsar?" Firdaus says. "Who are his parents?'
"I don't know," Asma cowers.
"So what am I supposed to do now?" Tawfiq says helplessly.
Despite the tension, for the first time Salma sees what has made the relationship tick. Firdaus has some sort of inner strength that can't be messed with. Tawfiq is more uneven. When he's down, Firdaus picks him up, in her own strange way. Usually, she does it before Tawfiq calls for it, their mutual barbs aside. But Firdaus now seems to have retreated to a new distance. She looks older, while Asma, still in her lap, seems to be acting younger than her age.
"I'm sorry, I can't help you with what you have to do," Firdaus says. "No one can. It's a dangerous business you're in. Sensitive technology, DoD, where the big money is. And the big risks."
"They're not shooting at us in the streets," Sikander says. "We're free to come and go as we please. There's nothing to do."
"Why do Sikhs cover their beards with plastic, Mommy?" Asma says.
"I don't know," says Firdaus. "I wish I'd finished my master's degree."
"Then I could have referred the FBI to my more educated wife," says Tawfiq. "You could have told them about Kierkegaard and Heidegger. They would have asked you if there's anything anti-American in that."
One of Tawfiq's friends calls that evening to relate a similar call he got from the FBI.
When he's through with the call, Tawfiq says, "Bilal has shipped off Mehreen to Pakistan."
"She's only twelve," says Firdaus, appalled.
"Uzma's age," says Tawfiq.
"My girls aren't going anywhere."
"Bilal's boy will stay in California."
Salma sees a wave of exhaustion come over Firdaus' face.
Later, shattering the communal silence, Tawfiq switches from the omnipresent CNN to a Lakers playoff game, and seems to enjoy it, shouting like a madman whenever Kobe and Shaq make an easy basket.