Thursday, August 11, 2005

Sick With The Flu

Fatima Kwam was home with the flu. Medical science could cure spinal cord damage, transplant hearts, eradicate polio and make you immune to HIV, but it still hadn’t cured the flu. Fatima doubted that her scientific endeavors would make any progress on that front either. She was President of the South High School Space club and her eyes were firmly pointed towards the night sky. When the fever woke her at 2 a.m., she went to her telescope and watched China’s orbiter lazily making its way around Mars.

Here parents didn’t live in the 7th century, the way some of her cousins in Northern Nigeria did. The equipment her father’s worker’s used was pure twenty-first century. Everyone in the family had a computer. Fatima was permitted to have a telescope and was also permitted to interact with Americans wearing only a head scarf. Her mother actually got angry when she heard reports of women being unfairly stoned.

But, old habits die hard. The thermopot next to her bed kept six cups of tea made from some medicinal root from Nigeria at exactly 80.0 degree Celsius day and night. If she didn’t finish this better medicinal wonder by tomorrow, her mother would chide her all day. And it did help, although Fatima suspected that hot water alone would have been equally effective.

Despite Fatima’s hard science bent, she also wasn’t naive enough to think that getting the flu was simply a matter of having the bad luck to be exposed to a virus. At a big school like South High, where janitorial services were not always the top budgetary priority, Fatima knew she was exposed every day to viruses every bit as unpleasant as the one currently afflicting her. She’d even cultured them for AP Microbiology, last spring. But, just as a man’s sperm won’t get a woman pregnant unless her body is at the right part of the month to receive it, a virus only takes if your immune system is too weak to stop it. Fatima’s immune system was weak and she knew why. It boiled down to stress.

Stress is not an absolute thing. A full academic course load heavy with math and science was normal for Fatima, not a stress. Living in a family with more than the average one point six children was also not a stress. Fatima had never known anything other than a house full of brothers and sisters. The loneliness of being stuck at home with the flu while everyone else was out at work or school was more stressful.

But, not everything was normal. Homeland Security investigators asking endless questions of her parents over the kitchen table, about friends, cousins, co-workers and business associates was not normal. The basket full of vellum envelopes describing older Muslim men in her mother’s paperwork nook at the end of the hallway, balanced by a neat stack of portfolios containing glossy oversized photos of her, was not normal. Going to school and the library until late into the night to prepare her Mars landing presentation was not normal. Her father’s phone calls to business associates to find good Muslim homes where his daughter could stay at college were not normal. The way she felt about a Catholic boy who showed up to science club meetings, just to pad his resume, but who had a flair for poetry, was not normal. Neither were the anonymous cards with his writing on them that kept turning up in her locker, under her purse, and once even in her gym locker in the ladies shower room. And then, there were the anonymous letters in Arabic that she found when she picked up the mail when she came home from school that gently reminded the family, in script written in blood, that the punishment for traitors to the faith is death.

Yes, stress was definitely a factor in this most recent bout of flu.

Fatima had tried an appeal to Islam to control the madness.

“Mother, how can you send my pictures far and wide like that. It’s a human image. Isn’t that idolatry?”, she asked, knowing that mother was prone to strict readings of the Quaran.

“I’ll consult your father.”, her mother said, not wanting to misstep. Later that evening, she and her mother were summoned to father’s den.

“There are some people who say that all representational images are forbidden by the Quaran as idolatry. When Allah spoke through Muhammed about the matter, the only representational images in existence were Orthodox Christian icons, which are clearly disobedient to Allah, the one and the only God. But, Muhammed did not command his men to tear their maps to shreds, and the Califfs in Baghdad did not condemn doctors for illustrating their medical texts, or geometers from illustrating their proofs. Worshipping an icon is wrong, but pictures with practical purposes are permitted. Getting you married, Fatima, is a practical purpose, and so it is permitted to use your photograph to allow their mother’s to see what kind of woman your mother has raised.”, father almost recited, having clearly practiced his response.

“But any man who saw me would worship me, wouldn’t he?”, she said.

Her father and mother both smiled, hoping she was right. But, her father’s reply was a mild rebuke.

“Worshipping yourself above God is also against God’s will to which you must submit.”

“Yes, father.”, Fatima replied, dejected. “But isn’t it immodest as well?”, Fatima continued without really having thought it through.

“That is why we send the pictures to the men’s mothers, and not to the men themselves.”, her mother said, more comfortable in the field of modesty than idolatry. Silence followed.

The fact that Fatima’s father had not yet sent the enrollment deposit to C.U., because the deadline was in another month and he wanted to hold off “just in case”, also did not ease Fatima’s nerves.

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