Sûrah L
"Hinderer of good, transgressor, doubter..."


With Pistol's exit, Zahra's mood transforms from grim to bleak, not because he counseled her to flee (which matters little), rather because of his remark concerning qibla (direction for prayer) and that she, alas, has been misdirecting her devotions. Would Allah countenance such a blatant breach of holy etiquette? Were recent invocations all for naught, her prayers in vain? Or could ones pure intent excuse an innocent lapse in protocol?

Zahra plies her tweezers, plucking armpit hairs methodically, in strict observance of fitrah—the believing nature signified by ten hygienic practices:

  1. Trimming the moustache (not a problem)

  2. Letting the beard grow (likewise moot)

  3. Utilizing the siwaak (tooth-stick or brush, which Zahra plies routinely)

  4. Irrigating nostrils (done discreetly)

  5. Clipping nails (she keeps hers short)

  6. Washing finger joints (yes, fastidiously)

  7. Depilating underarms (now in progress)

  8. Shaving pubes (she prefers to pluck)

  9. Washing after bodily wastes are vented (but of course)

  10. And rinsing out the mouth (with each ablution five times daily).

Noble though this regimen is for emulating the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), Zahra, since arriving in the West, has been remiss. By repositioning her prayer rug, she signals reformation.

1. This pain is good.

2. This pain reminds ones troubled spirit of the body's imperfection, of its weakness when confronted by Sharia—Islamic Law—the rules I followed until airborne; when my feet lost touch with earth, my heart and mind losing touch with truths self-evident in my homeland.

3. Was this fate? Am I like Icarus, having flown so near the sun my wings of wax grew soft, and, melting, plunged my soul into everlasting doom?

4. Dear Daedalus, Father, couldst thou not have forged thy daughter stronger limbs?

Her arms outspread, Zahra faces a mirror wherein duplicity seems reflected, the nacre of her armpits contradicted by their odor; rank as fish heads, smooth as seashells they are bittersweet, foul, sublime, the source of sweat, their sultry concave bracketing convex femininity; shifting focus, she examines the dimensions of her breasts, their plump proportions cause for unresolved self-consciousness.

5. See this chest? It is for nursing, not for pleasure. Our anatomies follow function. To desire a woman's bosom is to misconstrue its form.

6. We are not sperm spittoons for lust; we are wombed-men in whom Creation plays and replays Allah's mystery through our reproductive parts.

7. How dare men rape and plunder life's most hallowed vestibule!

Pain resumes, is self-inflicted more intensely being lower; plucking pubes, Zahra wonders at the fact that she feels anything there at all—the novelty frightening and confounding her by turns.

8. All men are beasts.

9. And though we each resemble animals in pursuit of basic urges, it is males who are prone to excess. Males make money, males wage war, males sew their seed in wanton crimes that propagate more male imbeciles.

Zahra's scorn, inflamed by tribulations past, ignites her present troubles hotly, raging like a fire in a noonday sun.

10. Males wage Jihad. Once I was one of them.

11. Now, excluded, I must ask if it was laudable or contemptible. It is written: "a pair of females is equivalent to one male." Islam, with few exceptions, devalues women; it is Law.

12. Yet I defied this sexist stricture. I was named Arous ad-Damn, and as a Bride of Blood my virgin's oath swore vengeance.

Legs akimbo, Zahra tends to her purgation, hair by isolated hair, the bathroom light a stark accomplice to this time-consuming chore, its bare bulb glaring as with bald-faced uncouth scrutiny.

13. Right or wrong? Each time a relive my decision to abandon those who sent me, to abort my sacred mission, to defuse the bomb within... On whose authority? Slaves of Allah do not gainsay His commandments; slaves obey, for, in obedience, lies salvation.

14. Wrong or right? And then I ask myself if Nafse Ammarah, the self that advocates evil, was restrained by Nafse Lawwama, the reproving self. Indeed. For had the soul at rest, named Nafse Mutmainah, guided my resistance, I would not be plagued each waking hour by doubts.

She tests her skin. A trace of stubble means her labor must painstakingly continue, for to depilate incompletely wastes the gesture.

15. Where dwells sin?

16. Without a blueprint for morality, how decide if acts are righteous? How discriminate rife self-interest from the dictates of Allah, if one rejects the very precepts of His will?

17. The crux is this.

18. Is Al Qur'ân—with its permissive slavery, its raising men above women, its astronomy wherein moon and sun revolve around the earth, its pitting Muslims against Christians, Jews, its silencing every critic, its intolerance toward those lacking faith, its glorifying acts of war—the Word of God or the word of those whose ears, through human limitations, hear what men alone define as virtuous or vile?

19. An utter blasphemy!

20. To even pose this question damns me for Eternity!

In despair, her vow to reenact Muhammad's stringent discipline irrespective, Zahra judges it unlikely that her crimes will be expunged. What does it matter which direction face—immaculate or unclean—if she aligns herself with the ranks of disbelievers?

Mons now bald, she claps her palms across its cleft, ashamed to be exposed.