So Are You A Muslim or What?

by Omar Hussain

The day I bury my dad there are last-minute volunteers for Democrats and Republicans, holding cheap-looking messenger bags with overflowing pamphlets, canvassing the neighborhood. The energy from their red or blue pins and over the top joviality powers them down sidewalks and up driveways and in doorways. It’s November in California, so it’s chilly. But it’s 55 degrees. So only Californians would ever think it’s truly chilly.

Dad died two days ago. I don’t even know what dimension I’m living in anymore. Google has been flooded by my searches for the last several hours.

What to expect at a Muslim burial?

Do I need to know Arabic for an Islamic funeral?

Can Muslims tell if you’re not really a Muslim yourself?

What I learn varies. Most of it depends on where the funeral happens and who is attending. Seems the most important thing is to get the body into the earth as soon as possible. Islam is not big on people visiting the corpse – standing over it mourning quietly or weeping with soul shredding howls.

My mother has already taken care of the most immediate responsibilities. At some point this morning, she cleaned his limp body and wrapped it in a thin sheet. This is impressive for many reasons – chief among them is that my mom, unlike my dad, is not from the Middle East. She wasn’t raised in an Islamic family. She was born in Santa Clara, California – to Anglo parents, sporting green eyes, red hair and holding a preference for ACDC and Van Halen. I’m guessing Google answered a few of her inquiries as well. Maybe she had a moment to stand over him one last time. To grieve. To say whatever she needed to say. A long reflection of memories strewn together with tender moments filled with laughter, glued to nights of horrible fighting, bound to a shared life full of the sweetly mundane.

At the nearest mega-corporate bookstore exists a step-by-step book for people dealing with loss. I don’t own that one yet. Don’t know what to feel or when to expect some arcane glimpse into the universe that signals the next phase of my life. Instead, I sit in the stale and stained driver’s seat of my car, the morning sun piercing through the cracked branches and brown, crusty leaves of the nearest tree, with the fleeting sting of light marking the first thing I’ve felt in 48 hours.

My brother, Hassan, gets in the car and it becomes apparent that he’s in a lot of pain over our dad.

“Did he ever catch you with porn or anything like that?”

I shake my head.

“He once found my browsing history. Big Wet Butts,” he laughs.

This is how he copes. He’s three years younger and it seems like every younger brother is somehow gifted a DNA helix stocked fully with gallows humor and an unending ability to make another person laugh, even when they really don’t want to.

He fastens his seat belt and I start the drive to the Islamic Center in Madera, a town thirty minutes south of Fresno, ripe with strip malls and fast food and little to no trees or bushes. Just sidewalks and despair.

We’re both nervous as we get closer because our last name is Khomaini, like the Ayatollah, but spelled with an “a” instead of an “e,” but still close enough to be ridiculed relentlessly or hassled by TSA anytime a conflict breaks out with a Middle Eastern country, despite our father immigrating from Pakistan and not Iran. Today the last name works against us differently. Nasir, the man who runs the Islamic Center, will take one look at that name, at our first names, and assume we’ve been raised as devoted Muslims.

Which we were not.

For some reason, dad never forced it on us. One trip with him to a Mosque in 23 years. Never saw him pray more than once a day. We fasted here and there for Ramadan.

We were basically generic Walmart versions of Muslims.

Every now and again Dad would get culture-guilt. Too many years away from home, from his family, from structured Muslim life. He’d demand that we go to an Islamic school. Say that we were going to learn Urdu and speak it to his brothers and our cousins back in Pakistan. I’d hang my head and solemnly agree – knowing that I could kiss some weekend freedom goodbye if it came to fruition – knowing it likely wouldn’t. Because it never did. Maybe it was money or the added responsibility, but he never made it happen.

As he was dying, he took it upon himself to make sure he was buried in a Muslim cemetery.

“You don’t want to be buried with your family in Pakistan?” we’d ask repeatedly, knowing that this was his stated desire for years.

“No. This is fine,” he said, worn down from disease and the logistics of the proposition. “This way you can visit me more often.”

After that, he made preparations through Nasir.

We make one last left turn and as soon as I straighten the car, I can see the Islamic Center – it’s unmistakable architecture straight out of a tourist brochure for Tehran. A shimmering silver crescent moon and star atop an iron rod. Golden domes with a curl wick topping white columns and oval archways. Swirls of metallic Arabic lettering along the windows and on the sign mounted to the freshly painted black gate separating the parking lot from the sidewalk. Across the street is a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The inside of the car is silent aside from the annoying ticking from my blinker. I turn into the parking lot. Somewhere within that building waits my father. As dead as he was two days ago but somehow fresh and ready for the next phase.

I park the car and Nasir is already standing outside waiting. He’s smiles and waves.

“He’s going to think I’m white,” my brother says.

It’s probably true. My dad gifted me some of his brown color. My brother got all of my mom’s white skin.

“Just use all of that Urdu you don’t know,” I say.

“Assalamu alaikum.”

We get out of the car.

“Brother Amir, brother Hassan – hello my brothers.” Nasir greets us outside the door. He’s wearing surprisingly western clothes – which may not be surprising if Google had given me a straight answer on common attire for a traditional Muslim burial. He stands with a painful slouch – black leather jacket too small for his rotund body, beige slacks and a tropical patterned button-up shirt. “Alhamdulillah,” he says repeatedly. I later look it up. Means “praise be to God.”

“Brother Amir,” he says to me in a deep rasp. “I’m very sorry about your father.”

“Thank you – we really appreciate that.”

He takes us inside. My brother gets quiet and starts shuffling around. I stand pat. The inside of the Islamic Center is modest. A couple comfortable chairs. Coffee table on top of a red and amber rug. Wooden floors. No real aroma.

“Please, brothers, let us pray.”

Nasir takes off his shoes before leading us through a pair of doors and into a room matted in the same way as a high school wrestling meet. Blue vinyl padding from corner to corner. At one end, another rug – this time green and gold – covers the padding. This is clearly where we pray. My brother and I exchange looks and take off our shoes. We each have only rough ideas on how formal Muslim prayer procedures work. But we also know that somehow by doing this, we fulfill our duty in burying our dad. So we fake it.

Nasir kneels and motions for us to join him at his side. He begins to rhythmically speak or chant in Arabic, citing the Qur’an and evoking God’s name many times. We mimic the way he holds his hands cupped at the center of his chest, lip-synch along with him, and follow him each time he leans down to bring his forehead to the edge of the rug. We rise with a half-second delay after he does. This goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time. Eventually, Nasir stands and leads us out.

“Do you think he checks out Big Wet Butts?” I ask my brother. He lights up. Smiles wide enough for his cheekbones to flourish.

We put our shoes back on and Nasir opens the front doors. Standing outside are ten to twelve total strangers, all men, a couple of them smiling, some dragging on cigarettes, many dressed just like Nasir, all of them Muslim – the real kind.

“When one brother passes, we must all come together to show respect,” Nasir tells me.

One by one they enter and form a partial circle around us. A few of them look at my brother. Up and down him. They furrow their brows. Make sure he knows he’s a fish out of water. It’s a dozen brown guys and him, in his infidel pigment glory.

“I told you,” my brother nervously whispers to me.

We say hello and they introduce themselves.

Safwan.

Kabir.

Asim.

I stop trying to commit it to memory. I don’t know what I want to remember from this day but it’s definitely not that.

But it dawns on me. My father deserves more people to be there today. More people that either knew him or know his religion or have a sense of what his experience was like in this country. Without these strangers, it’s just my mom, my brother, me. It’s just more Walmart Islam.

“Okay, brothers. Brother Waqar is over here.”

That was his name. Waqar. Most people could never pronounce it correctly, no matter how often he tried to help them. “Wuh-car,” he would say slowly. Rarely worked, especially with my white AF grandparents. They’d say “Walker” in a nasal twang. It would piss him off.

The men follow Nasir to a long, rectangular cardboard box in the shape of a coffin. It turned out to be a coffin. Sort of. Nasir would explain that Muslims do not use fancy coffins – it goes against the teachings of modesty found in the religion. The dead are buried straight into the earth. The box was just to transport him to the cemetery.

“Brother Kabir – you take that end. Asim, come here,” Nasir instructs. Several more men slide their fingers underneath the box. Eventually, they lift it and carry it outside. Slide it into the back of Nasir’s large pickup truck.

“Cemetery is only a mile or two that way.” Nasir points down the road. He gets into the truck and the other men get into their cars. Soon there is a parade of Muslim-led vehicles, bound by culture and tradition and virtues, headed down a ghostly stretch of black asphalt splitting desert dirt and palm trees. My brother and I get back in our car and follow.

“Alhamdulillah,” my brother says with a laugh.

By the time we catch up, they’re already parked at the cemetery and huddled near Nasir’s truck. The cemetery is new, with fresh green grass divided by a series of crisscrossing concrete walkways. There are very few headstones. At the center of the dividing walkways is a white gazebo that looks too poorly constructed to withstand a meager gust of wind. There is patio furniture underneath it. Sitting there, dressed in a hajib that guards her pale skin from the Autumn sun, waits my mom.

Nasir later tells me that men first pay respects. Then the women. I guard for a tsunami wave of guilt crashing over me – warning me about what this means for my mom and her dead husband about to be put to rest by a dozen strangers, speaking a different language, without her participating.

The men slide the box out of the truck and walk it to an already dug out grave. A four-foot mound of dirt lumped to the right of the hole in the ground. They take the top off.

“Brother Amir. Brother Hassan,” Nasir says. “You have to be the ones.”

We walk over. We stare into the box. The cotton sheet is wrapped so tightly to his body that I’m sure it’s him. The outline of his face – nose pushing out, his chin and jaw still cancer sharp. We lift him up. His body can’t weigh more than 100 pounds.

A couple of the men help guide his body into his final home. I’m handed a shovel. I know what this means but I don’t have enough time to just stop and pause. I don’t have enough sense to say, “wait, I need to say something to him” or “wait, can I just have a moment?” The stupid shovel gets handed to me by some random Muslim-guy and I snag a pound of dirt and toss it onto my dead dad.

And then I do it again.

And again.

Others join in. It doesn’t take long.

Dad is buried. Body hidden beneath fine grains of dirt and dozens of pebbles and dust particles.

My soul branded with regret’s searing hot prod. With the knowledge that this is the last thing I’d ever do with him. For him.

They start praying and again I’m left trying to pretend like I know what I’m doing. In my periphery I catch one of the guys staring. Noting my forgery. Shoots me a look that asks, “are you really Muslim?”

Yeah, I guess.

They finish their prayers and it’s over.

Simple, really.

A couple of the men say goodbye. Many do not. Soon, they’re all gone. My mother walks over and has her moment by the grave. Twenty minutes or so later, we get in our cars and start the drive back home.

The rest of the day vibrates with insincerity. Like the three of us just want to pretend like everything is back to normal. I go vote at a local high school. My mom does chores around the house. My brother is in and out of view, sneaking smokes out by the cars.

Time and place freeze.

Hours and minutes disintegrate.

My mom and brother crash early. Both in bed by nine. I stay up and watch the news. Live coverage of the newly elected president. He thanks his followers. He loves on his wife. He teases his two young daughters with the prospects of a new puppy in the White House. The crowd on television roars in euphoria. Heads bobbing up and down. Side to side. They hold their arms up in the air like God is about to bless them all. Like they’ve all just accomplished something eternally victorious. I watch and try to isolate the moment. I smile briefly.

But I never fall asleep.

I keep the TV on all night. Changing the channel periodically.

Hoping something would remind me of what’s real again.

Artist: Unknown

Omar Hussain’s writing has appeared in the Potato Soup Journal, (mac)ro(mic), the Heroic Universe, Arrow in the Head and the Wolverine Magazine, among others. His debut novel, The Outlandish and the Ego, was published in 2017.