Mostly Fatima and I practiced the passages I would need to perform daily prayers. We would go over the basics: the Tashahod and the Quran’s first sura—both of which are part of every prayer. But she’d also had me print out the phonetic versions of the Qurans last three suras, which are only a few lines each. With these, I would have options for the parts where it was “prayer’s choice.” This was the bare minimum I would need to do prayers right.
Fatima selected what we would practice each day. She would call out the words bit by bit, pausing for me to parrot her. It always reminded me of the famous scene from The Sound of Music where Julie Andrews teaches her young charges the basic components of a song by having them repeat the lines she sings. Only here it was called The Sound of Prayer. Fatima usually sat next to me as we practiced; occasionally, she would move around her apartment, tidying up and checking on her actual children. With my eyes glued to the appropriate cheat sheet, I would try to mimic what she said but sometimes, even after we’d been going over the same line for several minutes, it would turn to mush in my mouth. When that happened, Fatima would get close. It was the only time she was ever stern. “Look at my mouth,” she would instruct because I was always reluctant to take my eyes off the translation. I never thought staring at her lips would help but, somehow, it always did.
I adored practicing short phrases. After the twists and turns of the longer passages, “Alhamdulillah” (praise to God) and “Bismillah” (in God’s name) were like little treats. I wanted to repeat them over and over again. I loved how “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala” felt like marbles rolling on my tongue. Fatima’s favorite phrase was “Insha’Allah” (God willing). It peppered all she said, as natural as breath. She whispered it every few sentences even when discussing something as simple as what she planned to do that evening. But I noticed she said it even more for big things like the approval of her husband’s dissertation. “If that happens, we will be going home soon. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah.”
One afternoon Fatima answered the door looking upset. Her concern was a recent headline about her country: an act of terror had killed a slew of civilians, some American. We sat together in her little living room. “I think it is worse now,” she said, referring to the instability since the death of the ruthless leader. She squeezed her eyes shut. “My country,” she said, swallowing a sob. Tears streamed down her cheeks. My own eyes welled up and I reached for her hand. For several minutes, we stayed like that—just holding hands. I wished for something more to say or do, but I could think of nothing better than to make her pain my own.