“Is this unoccupied?” I heard a lady ask.
“Yes. Please be my guest,” I replied without looking up from the computer screen.
I was on the Staten Island Ferry on my way to Manhattan. Having spent two wonderful days with my friend and his family, the next stop in my itinerary was the World Trade Center and the much heralded memorial. I was composing a rather lengthy thank you to my friend and figuring out the appropriate words that would convey my feelings to him.
“Beautiful day ! Oh how I wish the summer lasts a bit longer,” I heard the lady remark. Without showing the annoyance, which diddled me, I closed the lid of my laptop and placed it on the table in front.
I looked at her and smiled; she was in her fifties, her face had a glow and her eyes were soft and soothing. Despite her age she looked slim and the loose top hid the contours of her upper body. Her head was covered with a scarf, a few stray black strands peeped out. As she held out her hand across the table, I noticed the long fingers with uncolored nails.
“I am Hannah, my apologies if I have disturbed you,” she said. I shook her hand and gave her my name.
“Oh! This is Fatima, my daughter,” she said looking towards the girl sitting next to her, who was looking out of the window towards the ships and boats sailing some distance away. She looked at me and smiled.
For a moment I held my breath and then my heart beats increased rapidly. Her smile sank into me deeply, its innocence coupled with the naivete bowled me over. I stuttered my reply to her when she greeted me.
Her head was covered with a hejab, hiding her hair and a portion of her cheeks. She looked young, conflicting with her attire that covered her entire body with a loose gown having long sleeves.
“You live in Staten Island ? You could be our neighbor,” Hannah smiled and asked.
“No. I am visiting and returning after staying with my friend for a couple of days,” I replied.
“Let me guess, you are from …” she was interrupted by her daughter.
“India!” Fatima exclaimed.
“That is correct. How did you detect it ?” I asked her.
“Your accent! I have many Indian friends,” she said.
“We would love to go to India!” Her mother stated.
“Yes, my friends have asked me many times. May be soon,” Fatima said, thoughtfully.
“Where do you want to go in India ?” I asked.
“Oh! I would love to be at the Taj Mahal with my husband on a full moon night ! I have heard about it so much !” Hannah said.
“How about you?” I asked Fatima.
“Oh me ! Listening to what I heard from my friends, I would like to visit the entire country!” She said.
“Any place in particular ?” I asked her. She thought for a while before replying.
“Ajanta and Ellora caves? I saw the pictures of the paintings and rock cut sculptures of these caves. I would love to see them and feel their presence,” she replied.
Hanna looked at her condescendingly and sighed loudly.
“Darling! You have opened a floodgate! It was at the Guggenheim art musuem that I met your father!” she said.
“Mom, not again! I am not interested, neither is he,” Fatima said, reproving her mother.
“No. Please continue, I am interested,” I said, hoping to hear an interesting story. Fatima looked away and kept staring out of the window at the sea.
“Like Fatima, I too am fond of art, we are into painting and some of Fatima’s works have been displayed in art galleries,” she said.
“Is it a full time vocation for her?” I asked.
“Oh no! You have to live and only art does not allow it. She has a full time job as a consultant in a big finance company. OK. Now to my meeting my husband at Guggenheim! He was to meet someone there and that person did not turn up, so he decided to look at the paintings. While I was looking at a modern painting, from a famous artist, and trying to figure it out, I sensed a man standing behind me.
“la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah. Taubah, taubah! (‘There is no might nor power except with Allah.’ Recited by a person when he is unhappy with something).” I heard a man, saying in a hissing voice.
This is how the conversation happened with him thereafter.
I turned around and faced a handsome young man with a cropped beard and in a black tuxedo.
“Did you say that to me?” I asked, aggressively. He was taken aback and kept staring at me.
“Has the rat eaten your tongue?” I said and came closer threateningly. He stepped back, but did not lower his gaze. Noticing that I was advancing towards him, he raised his hand and bent his head slightly.
“Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh (Peace be unto you and so may the mercy of Allah and His blessings)! Masha Allah (what God has willed), you look very beautiful!” He cried out in his resonating voice.
It was my turn to halt and step backwards. After a while I collected myself and faced him.
“What did you utter in Arabic? Tell me now or I will call the security person,” I told him in a normal voice.
“I will tell you the meaning of every word I have said so far, and also that I say now, ‘uHubuki’ (I love you), over a cup of coffee!” He replied.
I found him amusing, charming and, feeling flattered, agreed to his suggestion.
Hannah paused and looked at Fatima, who had been listening to her patiently.
“I will complete the rest. Ahmad and Hannah got married, facing bravely the hostile opposition from their respective families and communities, who soon reconciled. Their children grew up in different religious faith, me, Fatima as a Sunni Muslim and my brother Moses, as an orthodox Jew,” Fatima said and looked at her mother.
Hanna looked at me with pensive eyes and then shifted her gaze towards the window. I could feel a sense of despondency and meloncholy seizing her.
“Where are Ahmad and Moses?” I asked.
“Ahmad is at home leading a retired life and Moses lives and works in New York,” Hanna sighed and replied.
The thirty minutes journey ended and we bade each other goodbye as we disembarked from the ferry boat.
I decided to walk the twenty minutes trek to the World Trade Centre. There were fewer cars and pedestrians along the route; a fortnight had passed since the commemoration marking the 9/11 tragedy was held. At the Oculus, which is part of the World Trade Center, I spent half an hour admiring the place and its artifacts.
As I came out from the Oculus building, I noticed Hanna walking with a man towards the memorial. Taking long strides I caught up with them and accosted her.
“Hi Hanna, recognize me?” I asked her.
“Sure? My Indian friend! You should have told me that you are coming here. Never mind, meet my son Moses,” she said. I shook his hands and looked around them.
“Where is Fatima?” I asked.
Moses, taken aback with surprise, looked towards his mom with a quizzical frown.
“Oh! Come, follow me she said,” and moved towards the pool and stopped in front of a parapet. Taking out a bunch of roses she placed it on the parapet.
“She is here!” She said, controlling the tears from her eyes.
I stepped forward and looked down at the parapet and stood still in shock ! Written on the surface of the parapet was “Fatima Ahmad.”