All That Their Hearts Reveal
by Amal Nahurriyeh
Summary: Summer Ramzan is always the worst.
Rating: PG-13 (some cursing)
Angst Level: Low.
Timeline/Spoilers: Pre-MOF; takes place during Ramadan 1433/August 2012.
Disclaimer: Intellectual property is a capitalist fiction designed to oppress the working fic-writer. That said, I don't own them either.There are some characters in here that bear some resemblance to characters from The X-Files. Funny how that goes. Oh, hey, look at all these awesome science ladies!
Author's Notes: Written for eid_ka_chand's 2010 Eid Ficathon. The title is from the juz [portion of the Qur'an] for 20 Ramadan, Sura al-Qisas, 28:69, "And thy Lord knows all that their hearts conceal and all that they reveal." Many thanks to kairia and troisroyaumes for the very helpful betas.
There's a glossary at the end for those who aren't familiar with Islamic terminology or South Asian food. Pakora recipe here. A nice column about a Pakistani-American Eid celebration with recipes for both sweets and savory dishes here. Sukhadia's Sweets here. Everything there is good, I can attest personally.
For those who are coming from eid_ka_chand, this is a part of an ongoing universe, the Caseyverse, which follows my long story Machines of Freedom. Brief details about the setting and universe under the cut (so that Caseyverse readers don't have to read through it):
This is an X-Files future/AU fic. (As in, it hasn't been Jossed yet, but will be if anyone gives Chris Carter any money ever again. Unless he hires me with that money. He's free to do so.) The action takes place in an underground bunker in Stark, Montana, less than an hour outside Missoula, where a collective of scientists, linguists, and military-types, led by Mulder, Scully, and the rest of the XF team, are building a global alien counter-insurgency to prevent the impending colonization in December of 2012. (Mulder and Scully, however, are not yet in residence; they live in Virginia, and don't arrive until very close to the apocalypse.) Everyone who appears in this story is an OC. Isabel Yarborough is one of the two leads of the science/research department; she's engineering, Matt (who appears only off-camera in this) is biological sciences. Casey, who appears here in the first section, is a major character in the original story (Machines of Freedom), as you can guess by the fact that the extended universe has her name, but, on the off chance you want to read the original, I won't spoil who she is and what she does. Basically, it's all science and the revolution and a lot of tanks. And space lasers. Because, I mean. Space lasers.
Caseyverse readers, this is the Jamila mentioned in chapter 8 of MoF and Casey's note in Memories Made. Writing fanfic of your own fanfic: bizarre.
This bunker, Jamila told herself, as she transferred cultures into a new dish, was very closely climate controlled. All the time. The lab floor was kept at 22C, barring variations that required swift trips to go kick the HVAC system into shape. Not to mention that it barely got to 75 most days outside, because this was Fucking Stark, as most of the staff called it. There was absolutely no way that she was suffering in the heat.
It didn't matter. Summer Ramzan was always the worst.
It was the length of the days, she rationalized; that sehri was so early, and that iftari was so late. That was why this Ramzan was hitting her so hard. But that couldn't be all of it, because she didn't remember the summer Ramzans of her childhood being so hard to go through. Granted, it had been a while, and she'd been a kid, but those sweltering summer days of fasting in Plano hadn't seemed like torture, not like the ones now.
It was being alone. She didn't like admitting that; she liked her coworkers, and was particularly fond of the fact that she was, even as she stood there isolating the latest protein string they were going after, saving the world from aliens. But, for all the cavalcade of diversity in the bunker, she and Ismail were the only Muslims. She'd assumed, somehow, they wouldn't be so alone. There'd always been Muslims where she'd been, sure, not lots, but enough to feel like you weren't the only ones in the world. But here? Just them. Not even in communications: the Arabic translator was a Christian Palestinian raised in Israel, which was one of those identity clusters that had to have little moats dug around it, and they didn't have a Southeast Asianist in the bunker, the instillation in Jakarta handled all of that. Jamila had been privately excited when she heard they were bringing in someone who knew South Asian languages--even if it were a Hindu or Parsee or something, at least there'd be another desi around--but Casey turned out to be depressingly white. I mean, sure, she was nice, and she'd lived in Karachi for a couple months and had impeccable trashy Bollywood taste but--still a white girl, in the end.
And so she and Ismail were doing Ramzan all by their lonesome. The praying was still okay, but doing taraweeh in their tiny, tiny quarters was nothing like doing it at the masjid, surrounded by other women also trying to get closer to God. Nobody minded that she put her headphones in and listened to Qur'an while she worked during the day, but she missed hearing the khutbah, even if it was over crappy speakers from the other side of a partition like at that last place they'd gone in Paterson. She and Ismail would comm each other when it got close to maghrib--"IK-5704 to JM-5641, do you have time to go up to the quarters, or should I try to find us a space on the lab floor?" "No, I can get Miley to do the next irradiation"--and that was the extent of her community.
And, wallah, the iftaris. They'd ordered a big box of dates, which she'd bitterly noticed all the staff snacking on, and a bunch of mango-flavored drinkable yogurts pretending to be lassi, but apart from that, it was all geek food here, and ramen did not an iftari make. She'd been dreaming about the iftaris at her old masjid in Plano, Azizah Auntie's seviyan and her mother's jalebis and the gajar ka halwa from that woman, what was her name, the one who was such a bitch about the little girls wearing American clothes, but, mashallah, she could cook. Pakoras, that was what she'd been craving, a big bag of pakoras from Indian Chef in Loki, picked up on the drive home from work, eaten in the car so that all she had to throw out when she got home was the greasy paper bag and Is was pissed at her she hadn't saved any for him. "You snooze, you lose," she'd said, but then she'd started buying two orders.
She'd spent half an hour making sure that what appeared to be true was: there wasn't a single desi restaurant in the entire Missoula area. They would have had to go all the way to Spokane, and that was nearly four hours each way--she couldn't take a whole day off, no way. Ismail had listened appreciatively to her complaining, and been spurred on to a manic bout of Googling. Eventually, they'd ordered a bag of besan, two jars of tamarind chutney, and a box of chaat masala off the internet, and Casey had translated recipes off her iPhone while she used the infrared thermometer she kept for high-temp work in the lab to try to figure out when the oil got to 350 and Ismail tried to figure out how you dipped them in the batter without getting a giant claw hand.
They set the kitchen on fire. The senior staff was not pleased.
Afterward, they sat around eating bhel puri mix out of the bag and pouring chutney and chaat masala over tater tots from the communal freezer. "I wish my mom had taught me to cook," Casey had said, licking her fingers.
"Me too," Jamila said, and wished she could call her mom, not for the first time since she moved to the bunker.
Things had been going well. She and Ismail were a good match; everybody's mother approved, and their meet-cute at the MSA was the stuff of Muslim non-dating legend. (He'd dropped a full tray of samosas. On her head. She'd called him a fucking douche, thereby offending all of the cranky brothers. He'd cracked up.) He'd finished his master's; she'd gone through her internship; they'd ended up in North Jersey, which had the benefit of being far enough from both of their families to avoid excessive bothering, but right by a major airport for the necessary visiting. He liked working in Isabel Yarborough's lab, was geekily esctatic the first time he filed a patent. She was pleased to be in a big hospital, with the variety of samples she had to deal with on a daily basis, the calm camaraderie of clinical pathologists, parked far away from the bodies whose pieces they catalogued. No kids yet, though not for lack of trying. She knew she should have been upset about that, knew that at some point she'd have to listen to her mother's worried advice and actually get some testing done, but for the moment, it was a blessing, because there was only so much room in her head. In any case: they had a house. They went to Asbury Park on weekends in the summer. The guys at the Indian grocery two miles away knew her name. Things were good.
And then Is lost his clearance. And his job, because apparently that meant that he couldn't even be in the same room as any of the prototypes he'd been building. No one had a good reason; he said that Isabel hadn't even spoken during the entire session with legal, just sat there, staring a hole in the wall, barely looking at him. Just "you lost your clearance," and the unspoken subtext, this is what you get for being brown and working on products with weapons-design applications, this is what you get for that month-long vacation back to Pakistan six months ago, this is what you get for writing a thousand-dollar check to the Islamic center fundraising committee. There'd been a severance package, which had smelled suspiciously of bribery, and a brick wall.
He spent two months laying on the couch watching the Food Network. She'd gone to work every morning and pretended this was okay, come home to find him still there. His friends had been his coworkers. His schedule had been dictated by builds and conference calls with Shanghai and product roll-out dates. Why shouldn't he get to be depressed for a while? And then all his resumes got the dreaded "we'll let you know" response, and his networking came to nothing. "What did I do?" he asked her, one night, after a series of frustrating phone calls.
"You lived your life, that's what you did," she said, and resisted the temptation to throw the dishes she was washing against the wall.
He found work, adjuncting, teaching physics to community college students. She got promoted. They tried not to dwell.
It was a Saturday, early spring. The doorbell rang. Jamila groaned--she'd been trying to assemble this new Ikea piece of shit bookcase, and was about at the limits of her patience--and grabbed her dupatta where she had discarded it on the couch twenty minutes ago. The bell rang again. "Coming, coming," she said, wrapping it around her head, trying not to trip over the fucking pieces of pressboard spread out over her entire living room--she hated Ikea, why did they keep buying their stuff?--and opened the door.
Isabel Yarborough was standing on the steps in a blue suit, carrying a briefcase. "Hi, Jamila," she said. "Is Ismail home?"
She briefly contemplated slamming the door in her face. "What do you want?"
Isabel smiled. "I'm here to make you an offer you can't refuse," she said, in her abysmally bad imitation-Jersey accent.
Is came down the steps. "Who is it?"
"Dr. Yarborough," she said, with a straight face.
"Hey, Ismail. How are you doing?" Isabel said.
"Isabel. Hi." He shifted uncomfortably. "Um. You want to come in?"
"Sure, thanks. I'm glad I managed to catch you both." She glanced at the pressboard carnage on the floor. "Man, I have so been there. You know, they have a service that'll build it for you?"
"Seems like a waste of money," Jamila said.
"I guess." Isabel sat down on the couch. After some hesitation, Ismail sat in the chair catty-corner to it, facing her. Jamila decided it was the better part of valor to stand.
"How are things at the lab?" Ismail asked. She wasn't sure if Isabel could hear the mix of longing and bitterness in the question.
"I left," Isabel said, putting her briefcase down on the couch. "Three months after you got dicked over. I couldn't stay with people who would treat somebody like that, Is."
Jamila blinked. That hadn't been what she'd been expected.
"Anyway," Isabel continued, "I got a better offer. And that's what I'm here about."
"What is it?" Ismail said, shifting in his seat. He'd liked working with Isabel, he'd said that: she was a good lab director, a brilliant engineer, and she'd encouraged brilliance in others. Nevertheless, Jamila had her doubts that this was going to be a good idea.
"I can't give you details. Not until you're in. But it's a generalist position. You'd be working on a lot of different projects, most of them at their inception. The team is small, so everyone on it will have to pull their weight with the grunt work, but the potential payoff is enormous."
"Well," she said, and looked down. "It's private sector. You'd have to relocate."
"We can't," he said. "Jamila's job."
"Oh, sorry, I wasn't clear. The offer is for both of you." Isabel looked up at Jamila and smiled.
"You're a lucky break. Normally there's more compromise when we're bringing a couple in, but you two are perfect."
"You need a pathologist, and an electrical engineer with communications-design experience," Jamila said, nonplussed.
"We need a lot of things. But you're a good start."
"And it's so secret you can't tell us anything about it, but somehow the fact that Ismail's a 'security risk' isn't a problem." I
sabel opened her bag. "Well, we did our own check first, obviously." She pulled out a file, and Jamila's heart jumped in her throat, because the papers inside had photographs of them, detailed notes. "We managed to figure out what the clearance problem was, Is--your cousin Abdul Rahman gave money to an organization with ties to Hamas. That was it."
Ismail rubbed his forehead. "And that's not a problem for these guys?"
She shook her head. "I mean, first off, it's bullshit, because it wasn't you. The people I'm working with are very aware that family isn't destiny. And second off, I'm pretty sure, given the context, that your cousin didn't know about the link--he wrote a check to a charity he heard a presentation about at his mosque immediately after the presentation. And third--" She grinned. "We've got much bigger fish to fry."
"Bigger than Hamas." Jamila was beginning to get nervous, but the good kind of nervous.
Isabel turned to her her. "Much bigger. Jamila, how would you like to save the world?"
A year in Montana, so far, and it hadn't killed her yet. Sure, she and Is worked eighteen-hour days, but they did a lot of those hours in the same room--she'd go and visit while cultures were growing to watch him solder, he'd bring her lunch between meetings, they'd sit next to each other at dinner and go over plans for the sonic dispersers they were building with the other lab staff. If she had to spend all her time in a bunker with 20 other people, these 20 weren't bad. Their families had bought the story about how they were working on a top-secret military project, and they'd managed to take a week and a half, split between her folks in Plano and his in Chicago, where everyone had clucked over them and been slightly suspicious. (She was suspicious of everything, these days. Every masjid she'd been to, there were three or four guys who'd had elaborate conspiracy theories that explained everything with a single stroke. She wants to direct Fox Mulder to them; he's got nothing on those guys.) In the evening, if it wasn't below freezing, there'd be a party on the surface, where everyone else would drink like undergrads and stare at the infinite and terrifying stars you could see from a mountain in Montana, and talk shit. It was good times, generally.
But then there was Ramzan, and no pakoray, no jalebian, no Mama to nag her to take better care of her clothes and lend her bigger earrings to wear. They probably weren't going to be able to go somewhere for Eid, even. At some point soon, they should start watching the sky, following the moon as it shrinks down; Shab-e-Qadr was in just a week, or maybe less, and she felt, more than usual, in need of the Divine touch. She'd get Ismail to plan with her tonight, and maybe each night after their drying dates and too-sweet lassi-substitute they'd pile on sweaters and go up to the surface, put out a blanket, bring hot cocoa and watch the moon. Ya allah.
God damn, she was getting mushy from the low blood sugar. Maghrib couldn't come fast enough. She took a deep breath, adjusted her dupatta, and slid a new set of cell cultures into her workspace.
"I hate everybody," Isabel's voice came over the comm line in sing-song. "I hate airplanes. I hate airports. I hate TSA. I hate long-term parking. I hate ehhhhh-vry thing."
"Welcome back," Matt said back.
"Thank you. I hate Montana, too, but less than you would think. When's our meeting?"
"Can be over dinner. No rush."
"Sweet. Hey, JM-5641, where're you?"
She picked up her phone. "1Y. Why, did Dr. Scully send you more files for me?"
"Yeah, but--" Her voice was echoing right outside the room. "Oh, hold up, I'm here."
"So you are," she said. Isabel had grown, with time, into something approaching a friend over the past year. It had been too easy to hate her for not saving Ismail's job, back in Jersey; she'd done the right thing by walking, and then gotten them here, which, freakish as it was, was the best job Jamila thought she'd ever have. Isabel flopped down into a spare desk chair, and pulled off her business-traveler sensible flats. "How was DC?" she asked her.
"Fine. I don't know why the hell there isn't a single direct flight between there and any airport near here, but that's an entirely different issue. Four hours on the tarmac at Salt Lake. And my Kindle battery died an hour in." She was picking out the liner inside the shoe that concealed the secret compartment. Smuggling data in shoes: this place was absurd.
"Poor you. What do you have for me?"
Isabel pulled a flash drive out of the plastic baggie she'd had hidden in the compartment and dropped it on the bench. "You, lucky girl, got the Dana Scully Half-Eyebrow of Approval on your report. She had a whole bunch of suggestions about things, which fall in the category of 'shit I don't have a graduate degree in' so I'll just let you read the notes. But!" She reached for her rolling suitcase. "That's not the issue."
Out of her suitcase, she pulled a white plastic shopping bag. Jamila leaned over to peek in. It held three giant boxes of once-frozen pakoras. TASTE OF INDIA, they said, in bright orange. "I drove past this giant Indian grocery on my way out to the meeting place. I figured if I brought you these, you wouldn't set the place on fire any more, right?"
"I'll try," she said, trying to fight the slight well of tears in her throat.
"And I don't know what any of this means," she said, pulling out two boxes of sweets and passing them over. "But sugar's the first ingredient, that's good, right? And they've got, like silver leaf or something. I gotta tell you, I will no longer brag about Freihoffer's."
Pista rolls and helwa and jalebian and burfee. She missed her mother more now, but it hurt less. "Thanks, Isabel. Really."
"So, when do we get to eat this stuff? I'm not carting it across the country and not getting to try it."
Jamila cleared her throat and checked the list of prayer times she had taped to her incubator. "8:38."
"I don't know how you guys do it. OK, I'm going to go shower and change into human being clothes. Call me when there's fried shit."
"Maybe we'll have a whole iftar party," she said. "Everybody can come eat microwaved fried shit."
"Awesome," Isabel said, pulling her suitcase, now a lot lighter, out the door.
She closed her eyes, and thanked God for the small things, as always. Then she carried the food away to the food-safe side of the lab. Before she set it down, she opened the box of sweets and smelled them, all cardamom and butter.
They'll go up tonight. They'll watch the moon. It's worth it.
Ramzan: Urdu rendering of Ramadan. Ramadan moves through the Western calendar, shifting up 11 days a year. In 2012, it'll be in July and August.
Sehri: Urdu, from the Arabic suhur: the breakfast you eat before beginning fasting Iftari: Urdu, from the Arabic iftar: literally, breakfast; the meal you eat after fasting ends. Traditionally begins with a date after the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), and some water; followed by basically eating all the foods. Ever.
Desi: Generic for "South Asian" (literally means "of the country," the country in question being India-in-the-largest-sense); really only used in the US by second-generation/US-born South Asians who are politically invested in crossing national identity borders, and I could detail more but I'm not wearing my Professor Nahurriyeh hat right now, am I?
Taraweeh: optional night prayers performed during Ramadan Masjid: Arabic for mosque, used in much of South Asia as well
Maghrib: Arabic, literally, west/sunset; the evening prayer, around sunset; when you're allowed to start eating again during Ramadan.
Mashallah: Arabic, God has willed it (meaning something's already happened; inshallah is for something that hasn't happened yet)
Seviyan, jalebi, helwa, pista rolls, burfee: South Asian desserts. They are good; you should go get some right now. RIGHT NOW. Unless you live in Missoula, in which case you're SOL. Sukhadia's ships.
Pakoras: fried vegetable dumplings of epic perfection.
Besan: chickpea flour
Chaat masala: spice mix for snack food. So good. SO GOOD. BUY SOME NOW. EAT IT ON EVERYTHING.
Bhel puri: crunchy-spicy South Asian junk food.
Shab-e-Qadr: Urdu, from the Arabic Laylat al-Qadr, Night of Power, the night when the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad (pbuh). The holiest night of Ramadan, and a night when mystical energy is concentrated. Usually on 27 Ramadan, but occasionally another odd-numbered night in the last 10 days.