I never was one to pay attention to the news. I didn’t bother with politics and as much as my heart went out to those who were suffering, I didn’t believe in occupying my mental energy with continuously hearing about all the bad in the world. So, what? The world is a bad place, that’s not new.
I saw it all first hand. Where I come from you don’t have to turn on the tv the warzone is right outside sometimes you don’t even have to make it to the door. My name is Kayla Thomas, I live in the projects of South Central LA; born and bred. Growing up in the hood meant you grew up hip to the system. My whole life and the lives around me are proof of the injustice we face. America wishes we weren’t here, they fill our communities with drugs and incite gang violence. Sometimes I think black folk aren’t much better than sheep letting the white man herd. The U.S government doesn’t like us, and we don’t trust them because of this I always thought Blacks were at the bottom of the totem pole, turns out I was wrong.
I stared at myself in the mirror, brushing my teeth I heard my alarm go off.
“beep beep, beep beep,”
Rushing to my bedroom, not wanting to wake up Darren I silenced my alarm. I quickly got dressed, grabbed my books and snuck out the house. At 6 in the morning the California streets were quiet. I liked it like this. Newspapers and empty cans littered the streets, the sunshine emanated off the graffiti, and the palm trees stood tall. A lone shopkeeper used a rusty broom to sweep away the trash in front of his convenience store. I made my way through the streets taking my time passing houses and cutting through alleyways to get to school. The gleaming white building of Mercer High School loomed in the distance. The product of a rich man’s charity project, the beautiful campus seemed out of place next to the surrounding projects. As I reached the parking lot I heard my name,
“Ay yo Kayla,”
I turned around, walking towards me was T.J Griffin a notorious drug dealer and a diehard blood. His sagging pants caused him to walk with a limp.
“You get shot or sumn,” I motioned to his limp fully aware of the cause. My comment hit the exact mark I intended it to.
“Nah hoe this just how a real nigga walk,” his response dripped with insecurity.
“What do you want T.J?” I sighed, already I was over this conversation.
“Tell Darren to call me, we got business to handle,” He replied fixing his chain over his red crewneck.
“Call Darren your damn self, do I look like a fucking bird? And pull up your pants, all that crack money and you can’t buy yourself a belt?” I snapped with distaste.
I turned and walked towards the entrance before he could respond; not that he would respond I guess that was a perk, the only perk of my mom’s new relationship with a thug. People feared Darren and that in turn caused people to stay out of my way. I wasn’t complaining I like being alone, I like being left alone. I swung open the entrance door quite dramatically, not bothering to hide my annoyance at T.J’s stupidity. Walking up to my locker I let my mind drift elsewhere. I dreamt of applause, giant red curtains, and 5th avenue New York.
“Six months,” I muttered to myself quietly. Six months and I would graduate and move far away enough to forget this ghetto old town and everyone in it. The familiar clicking sound of my best friend’s shoes and the loud clanging of my locker being shut snapped me out of my daydream.
“Wassup girl! Sorry that was an accident” She said while signaling towards the locker. Cece leaned against the neighboring lockers and smiled. At 5’8 and a size 2 she could easily be a model, she made standing in a school hallway look like a Vogue editorial. Cece’s real name was Cecilia but she’d never tell you that, she was named after her paternal grandmother. Her mom was a secretary that ended up marrying her boss. Her white boss. By Cece’s 3rd birthday her dad was fucking the new secretary and her mom moved back to the projects with her daughter in tow. Cece might’ve been born to a rich white daddy but she had nothing to show for it, me and her were cut from the same cloth.
“There’s a new kid, he’s in our grade and fineee as hell,” she put emphasis on the word fine.
“What? Who transfers schools in the middle of senior year?” I replied quizzically while placing my books into my open again locker. I ignored her statement on the new guy’s looks, Cece also thinks T.J is ‘fineee’ so you could say I don’t trust her judgment in appearances. Plus, I wasn’t focused on boys. New York, six months; that was my mantra.
Cece and I headed to class laughing as I filled her in on my run-in with T.J. We entered 1st period English Lit and in my usual seat was a boy I had never seen before. He sat leaned back staring out the window, his demeanor read nonchalant. I approached him suddenly nervous.
“Uh, you’re in my seat.” My voice came off much ruder than I intended it to.
“I didn’t know there was assigned seating.” He smiled softly, warmth flowed out of his brown eyes and I melted. A foreign sentiment dominated my body. Every inch of his persona stood out, his skin was honey, his hair perfect swirls, and his boyish grin stopped time itself. Suddenly the rhythmic ticking of his pen ceased, and I was brought back to reality.
“There isn’t, I just always sit there.” My response was hasty.
Looking slightly amused he replied, “but the leg is broken? The entire desk wobbles.”
“So why are you sitting here?” Once again, my tone came off defensive.
He shrugged, “I like looking at the palm trees, what’s your excuse?”
“I… I get anxiety and being near the window helps.” My answer just spilled out and I immediately regretted it. Why did I just tell a stranger something so personal, that wasn’t like me. I didn’t even talk about my anxiety with Cece. Utterly mortified and wanting to shift the conversation I quickly added,
“You can look at palm trees from any seat in this row, why choose this one?” The chatter of the classroom was increasing, and it was hard to hear my soft voice. He stood up and leaned in, I could smell his cologne.
“People who sit in the front and back of the class get called on,” was that uninterest I was reading in his voice? I suddenly was overcome with sadness.
“In the middle you can daydream.” I finished his sentence quietly still focused on the transition of my emotions.
“Yeah,” he whispered, locking eyes with me; any residue of sadness evaporated instantaneously. Moving aside he beckoned towards the empty desk. I sat dazed about the encounter; a million thoughts racing through my head. What was wrong with me? Why was I so disoriented over a guy? I don’t even know his name.
“Settle down class, take your seats.” Mr. Ashkani’s thick accent broke my intense trance,
Our English teacher was a short stout man that wore pleated suits in 95 degree LA weather. He had an authentic passion for literature but hard as he tried his students took no interest; over the years that flaming passion dulled to a flicker. Quiet chatter quickly resumed as Mr. Ashkani began monotonously discussing the authenticity of Shakespeare ‘s work.
“Psst… what did you say your name was again?” His quiet whisper sent the hairs on the back of my neck into formation.
“I didn’t.” I turned around slightly facing him. He looked amused again, “Well what is your name?”
“Maybe I don’t have one,” I didn’t know why I was being difficult. All I knew was I didn’t want the conversation to end.
“Okay princess they gotta call you something.” He replied with a smirk. My heart skipped a beat, I was trying to come up with a witty response when Mr. Ashkani interrupted.
“Ms. Thomas, maybe you can teach us the theories of Shakespeare’s authorship as you seem to be quite knowledgeable on the subject. Knowledgeable enough to not pay attention I see.” His tone was stern, and I could tell he was in a crummy mood. I wasn’t used to being put on the spot in class. I usually flew under the radar. I felt my face turning red.
“Uh…” stammering to come up with an answer a voice behind me spoke.
“Well sir, there are many theories to Shakespeare’s authorship, two of the most popular being the Baconian theory which states Sr. Francis Bacon wrote the plays or the Oxfordian theory which insinuates that Earl Edward De Vere wrote them. The Baconian theory took popularity due to the philosophical similarities between the work of Shakespeare and the writings of Sr. Francis Bacon. The theory was further fueled by the ideology that Sr. Francis had to hide his identity, so the plays wouldn’t jeopardize his to rise to office, so he published his work under the alias Shakespeare. Similarly, the Oxfordian theory states that there are similarities in Earl Edward De Vere’s own poetry and Shakespeare’s plays. The related writing style and the corresponding autobiographical factors that go hand in hand with the events in Shakespeare’s plays are the Oxfordian’s main arguments; however literary historians dispute the reality of both theories causing them to be nothing more than popular conspiracy.”
The room was dead silent, all eyes on the boy. It seemed as if no one was breathing.
“Ahem…” Mr. Ashkani cleared his throat clearly taken aback, “Well, um that is correct. And you are?”
“Mo,” he casually replied.
“In my classroom we refer to each other by last names. You are?” Mr. Ashkani tried to keep his voice harsh, but it was clear Mo had won him over.
“My apologies sir, my name is Mo Jama.”
“Muhammed… Jama?” Mr. Ashkani asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes.” Mo’s face was hard to read.
“Does anyone know who Muhammed was named after?” Mr. Ashkani said addressing the class.
“I believe I was named after my uncle,” Mo interjected, was that a glimmer of hilarity in his eyes?
“And his uncle was named after whom?” Mr. Ashkani replied still speaking to the class.
“Muhammed Ali?” One of the students answered and laughter erupted from the room.
“That is a good guess, you’re on the right course. Do you know why Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali?” Mr. Ashkani responded eagerly. This was the first time he had the attention of a class since he started teaching.
“I know, cuz he didn’t want no slave name.” Another student answered proudly.
“That is very true, but why specifically the name Muhammed?” Mr. Ashkani persisted.
“After the Prophet Muhammed Sallallahu ‘Alaihe wa Sallam” Mo’s voice was quiet. I still couldn’t read his expression.
“Correct!” Mr. Ashkani replied excitedly. “The Prophet Muhammed Sallallahu ‘Alaihe wa Sallam which translates to May the blessings and the peace of God be upon him was the last and final prophet of Islam. Muslims follow his teachings and the Holy Quran. He is known to be the most humble and perfect man to ever walk this earth, many parents name their children after him which is why Muhammed is now the world’s most common name.”
“He got any connections to the Nation of Islam? My granddaddy is a part of them. They’re real fucking niggas.” A student named Michael asked. Mr. Ashkani smiled, happy that the students weren’t ignoring him he let the cursing slide, “Yes, the Nation are Muslims.”
“I heard Muslims be blowing shit up, like they terrorists.” Another student interrupted.
I turned to see Mo’s reaction, but still his face was blank.
“The word Islam translates to peace in English. The entire religion is based on five pillars; faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Nowhere in Islam does it make it okay to harm let alone kill. It is heartbreaking, and those people are not Muslim.”
“How do you know so much about this Mr. Ashkani?” I asked. I was completely transfixed. I knew absolutely nothing about Islam other than 9/11 and they covered their hair.
“Well.” He hesitated before taking a seat, “I was a born to a Hindu family in a small village in India. In India, there is a lot of religious unrest. The Muslims and the Hindus find it difficult to put aside their differences. Both parties believe their God is the true God. I was an early adolescent studying at the local school when my village was attacked by a Hindu extremist group. They burned down everything, and killed dozens including my parents.” His voice broke and his eyes watered, “They didn’t care who worshipped what, whether they were massacring Hindu’s or Muslims. They left me a homeless orphan. A Muslim family took me in and showed me kindness. I stayed with them and learned their way of life. Eventually, I made my proclamation of faith and officially converted to Islam.” With that the bell rang and the students shuffled out of their seats. Silence and sadness hung in the air as we all avoided making eye contact with Mr. Ashkani.
“Ahh, saved by bell how ironic. A sad story but with a happy ending nevertheless.” He let out a soft chuckle, “Don’t forget review notes on Chapter 7 are due tomorrow.”
“How can you be so casual about it all?” A timid girl named Lani asked. His story obviously upset her, and teardrops glistened on her waterline.
“As a Muslim I put my faith in God and believe everything happens for a reason.” Mr. Ashkani responded with a small smile.
“But… But how do you not hate God after what he put you through?” She retorted.
“That’s life Lani, something happens to everyone. How we handle it is the test.”
Lani accepted his answer reluctantly and made her way out of the classroom. Slowly the students quietly filed out of the classroom until there was just a handful of us left.
“Hurry along you don’t want to be late to your next class,” Mr. Ashkani said while motioning us out the door. “Mr. Jama, a word please.” Mo lagged behind while the rest of us exited.
I made my way to second period bewildered by everything that had occurred. I sat through the rest of my classes hoping to see Mo again but he simply vanished. I didn’t see him at lunch or in the hallways. As the final bell rang I dejectedly made my way down to the track field.
Cece was on the field stretching. “Where were you at lunch? I haven’t seen you since 1St period.”
“Uh… I was in the library.” I answered quickly not wanting to tell her I spent the whole time searching for Mo.
She seemed uninterested with my answer, “Speaking of 1st period, how awkward was that?” she continued on with her stretches.
“I thought it was sad,” I responded joining her.
“You really believe all that bullshit about Muslims being peaceful?” She asked naively.
“I don’t know anything about Muslims or Islam, but I don’t think any God would command people to kill.” I didn’t know why Cece was being biased against a community she knew virtually nothing about, it didn’t seem like her.
“Whatever, so I told you the new kid is fine! Terrorist or not I’d let him hit.” She changed the subject with a laugh.
“Cece! You can’t just say shit like that.” I was shocked at her level of ignorance.
“What? so would you, I saw y’all talking in class.”
“No, the terrorist part stupid,” I replied rolling my eyes.
“Gather round ladies.” Coach Martin’s voice boomed across the field, standing next to him was Mo. My hands started sweating and not because of the LA heat.
“This is your new assistant coach Mr. Jama. Great now you’ve met, back to your warm-ups.”
The girls made their way back to their routines as Mo approached Cece and me.
“Hey.” His smile was bright, “I didn’t take you for the running type.”
“I run, question is, can you? Everyone knows coaches coach because they can’t do the work.” I replied matching his playful tone.
“How did you become assistant coach, you’re still a student,” Cece asked with a tinge of jealousy in her voice.
“I made State at my last school, I can’t join the team because I can’t make the meets. This is the best way I could stay involved.” His response was causal as if making state was eating cereal for breakfast.
“If you’re that good, why don’t you have a scholarship?” Cece interjected. She was being unnecessarily overbearing and quite frankly was getting on my nerves.
Mo seemed unbothered, “You gotta make meets to keep a scholarship.” He replied while shrugging.
“The meets are twice a month, for a few hours. Transportation is provided for you. How could you give up the easiest scholarship opportunity? Nigga is you stupid?” Her tone was harsh, and I was taken aback.
Cece’s dad had put aside a college fund for her, it was the only money he left for Cece and her mom and she wasn’t allowed to touch it for anything besides University expenses. Cece hated the idea of taking handouts from her absent father. She worked her butt off in school and sports, anything to get a full-ride scholarship. With the end of senior year approaching and no prospects on the horizon, she was starting to get desperate. Mo’s nonchalant tone must’ve set her off.
Mo caught on to Cece’s obvious sensitivity, he softened his tone. “I have weekend obligations.”
Cece brushed it off and started jogging down the field. I looked up at Mo, he was significantly taller than me, so it was hard to see his facial features with the sun beaming down.
“Weekend obligations?” I asked.
He sat down on the grass and motioned for me to sit next to him, “I teach on the weekends at the Islamic school at the Khadijah Mosque.”
“What do you teach?” I asked my curiosity suddenly piqued remembering today’s English lesson.
“Quran lessons, stories of the Prophet and his companions, stuff like that.”
“How long have you been teaching?” I was genuinely interested, surprising myself I wanted to hear more.
“Not long. My family moved down here from Oakland. I wasn’t involved much in religion up there. My little brother got involved with the wrong crew and was caught in the crossfire of a shootout. He’s paralyzed from the waist down. After that, I got really into the spirituality of Islam and my mom thought it’d be best if we moved so here I am.” His expression was blank. It was impossible to read him.
“I’m… I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what to say. Surprised that he opened up to me on such a personal level I was at a loss for words.
“It’s okay I’ve had the time to come to terms with it all.” He smiled softly.
“You don’t talk like you’re from Oakland.” My forced attempt at moving the conversation along was pathetic.
He laughed, “You mean I don’t talk ‘hood.’” He paused “I never got involved with that lifestyle, I was only five when my dad left back to Somalia, and I had to be the man of the house. But I guess you could say the way I talked changed when I started reading the Quran and its meaning. It’s scripted like poetry and has an effect on your entire life, my speech is only one of the many ways its changed me.”
I was shocked. I got to know more about him in 10 minutes then I did most people in years. “That’s really beautiful. I can tell your faith has a big impact on who you are.” I replied quietly.
“And who are you, Kayla Thomas?” His eyes were filled with intrigue.
“How did you know…?”
“Your name? I did my research princess.” He interrupted while leaning back. “So, who are you?” he persisted.
“Well, you’ll just have to find out.” I retorted flirtatiously.
Track practice went by quickly, I spent most of the hour sneaking glances at Mo and feeling pangs of jealousy when he helped the other girls with their techniques.
That night I dreamt a series of disoriented dreams. Mo showed up in a couple of them, but I spent the night tossing and turning. The next morning, I awoke late feeling unhinged and tired. It was a beautiful Saturday in Los Angeles, but something felt off. I grungily made my way towards the kitchen.
“BREAKING NEWS: We are hearing reports of a massive explosion inside Dodger Stadium. We don’t know what the cause of the explosion is but there are reports of terrorist activity…” The tv was quietly playing in the living room while Darren rolled a blunt.
“Turn that up.” I signaled to the screen. Darren turned the volume up while shaking his head, “They really done it now. Trump’s fool ass really bout to go to war over this.”
“We are now getting confirmation that this was indeed a terrorist attack with reports that the suspected terrorists are linked to local Khadijah Mosque. The confirmed death toll is now above 30. We have Caty Johnson on the scene.” My heart dropped. Terrorist attack? 30 dead? Did she say Khadijah Mosque? Wasn’t that Mo’s mosque? My brain was on fire, I felt nauseous. How did this happen? We were just talking about Islam. I was starting to get lightheaded.
The reporter on the screen looked flustered, “This is Caty Johnson and we are here at Dodger Stadium as you can see there is still smoke coming up out of the remains of the stadium. There is a confirmed 32 dead but it’s just a sea of bodies here. This is truly heartbreaking. Fans of all ages gathered here to enjoy a baseball game this afternoon when 3 bombs went off within 30 seconds of each other. I have here with me witness and local dodgers fan T.J Griffin.”
Darren laughter echoed through the house. “That fool! Ha! Dodgers fan! That fucking idiot was probably selling stolen tickets.” Darren lit his perfectly rolled blunt and the smell of weed filled the house.
“Where’s my mom?” I asked fighting the urge to throw up.
“Getting milk from Sam’s corner store.” He continued inhaling and laughing at T. J’s weak attempts to flirt with the reporter.
“You know gorgeous, I was just trying to enjoy the game when bam outta nowhere those Islam niggas started popping niggas one by one.” The reporter obviously confused at T. J’s version of events responded, “popping? As in guns. There were no reports of guns. Are you saying you witnessed the terrorists shooting into the crowd.” T.J brushed her inquiries into his bullshit story off, “Damn ma this terrorist shit got me real stressed out. Can we talk one on one off camera, or we can keep the camera on if you want but homeboy gotta go” He said motioning at the cameraman
My mom walked in with groceries as the tv screen shifted now reading, “WE ARE SORRY TO DISRUPT YOUR REGULARLY BROADCASTED PROGRAM. THIS IS AN ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE UNITED STATES PRESIDENT.” President Trump’s face appeared on the screen. Sitting in the oval office he started speaking.
“We as a country cannot sit idly and watch these terrorists invade our home and kill our citizens. We cannot let our children be victim to their violence. My promise to you, America was I would defeat ISIS. I will defeat ISIS. Muslims have proven to be a threat to national security and even with a ban, they have managed to attack us on our home front. My heart goes out to the families who lost their loved ones today, and the countless men, women, and children who were just trying to enjoy America’s favorite pastime and now will forever be traumatized. I will not sit back and watch those who threaten our peace succeed. I will fight for you, which is why as your President I am proposing to Congress an indefinite hold of Muslims in Internment facilities until we can further investigate their threat to American soil.”
The house was silent. I assume every house across the country was silent. My mother stood mouth agape, milk still in hand. My heart was thumping. Interment facilities? He couldn’t mean concentration camps? This was 2018, not 1942. We learned about the Japanese and Jewish internment in history class, this was the present. What did this all mean? I thought about Mo and Mr. Ashkani and all the other Muslims I knew. I was having trouble breathing. This couldn’t be real.
“Holy fucking shit…” Darren broke the silence. His forgotten blunt still burning in his hand.
“… it’s the American Holocaust.”