Chapter 1: The Opening
Setting: Early October 2010, new school, Houston, early morning
Characters: Ms. Suzy, Ibrahim, Khadija, Amna
“What’s your name?” I hear the teacher ask.
It’s a new day, in a new place, and a very new teacher for all of us. The question, however, is a familiar one.
My son, who keeps reminding me that he will be five and a half in a matter of weeks, responds, “My name is . . . Ibrahim . . . well, actually, it’s longer, Muhemmed Ibrahim Shaban, but call me Ibrahim for short. I jumped off Signal Hill right before we left Cape Town. I wore a helmet and had sort of . . . umm . . . a net and a pair of wings. Do you want to see my picture? You can also see the World Cup Stadium if you look carefully, but, you know, Spain won, not South Africa.”
I can see that the teacher is taken aback, and imagine her asking herself the following questions: He jumped off a hill with wings? Near the World Cup Stadium?[i] She adjusts her glasses as if to focus her thoughts. I wonder whether she has ever met a boy named Ibrahim before. I also wonder how many mothers in hijab have passed through the school doors. There don’t seem to be any this morning that I can see.
I had chosen a small Montessori program because it was close to our home, just a half day of kindergarten, and they had an opening for us well after the start of the school year, but talking to the director over the phone and handing my son over to Ms. Suzy were two very different things.
“Well,” she finally says, “welcome Ib-ra-him.”
Slowly, the name comes out from her mouth and, although tentative, its pronunciation is followed by a smile. Ibrahim meanwhile is beaming at her, waiting, it would seem, as if to tell her more.
“Thank you Ms. Suzy,” I interject, then explain. “Ibrahim went tandem paragliding right before we moved, and just one month after the World Cup. It left quite an impact. And his name is Arabic for Abraham, like Abraham Lincoln. This is my daughter.”
I point down to Amna then continue, “Her name is Amna, Am-na, almost like ‘Amy’.”
Amna waves at Ms. Suzy as if on cue, and also beams. She’s wearing bright yellow overalls, a parting gift from my neighbor, which she chose to wear to accompany her brother to school. She wanted to make sure she wouldn’t get lost, or at least that is how she tried to explain it in our scramble to get dressed this morning. I’m hoping, that despite our eccentricities, we give a good first impression though I do feel a bit nervous myself, and adjust the edge of my hijab near the pin below my chin.
I pause for a second more before I proceed, “I am Khadija. My name is more of a mouthful, but once you’ve said it once or twice and maybe even seen it in writing, it will all seem more familiar.”
I start to take out a piece of paper from my brown, leather purse. Ibrahim, however, beats me to it, writing out his name on a small school notebook he is carrying. He hands it over to Ms. Suzy, together with his photograph, taken in flight.
“It all sounds and looks quite exciting. Yes, very exciting,” Ms. Suzy repeats. “I’m sure we’ll have fun getting to know each other, and I’m certainly looking forward to learning about all those soccer teams.[ii] Welcome, again. And yes, maybe you can write out your name? That would help.”
Once again, before I can respond, Ibrahim in his ever-forthright manner adds, “Do you know my father has three names? I call him ‘Papa’ and my mother calls him ‘Abdurrahman’ and my Nonna calls him ‘Nico’. I’m sure some of his coll-eag-ues at the office call him ‘Sir’, too. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Yes, very interesting,” Ms. Suzy nods. She seems to be less taken aback than at first, and maintains a smile. Perhaps she is getting used to us all, or perhaps we are actually not that different.
She reaches out for Ibrahim’s hand, and adds, “Why don’t I show you where you will be sitting and you can meet your classmates.”
I feel a lump forming in my throat as I wave good-bye. Ibrahim follows Ms. Suzy into the classroom and I watch him disappear. I know in my heart that he will be alright, but every goodbye always hurts, and I suspect always will, even as the children age.
It’s been a busy first month in Houston, as we sort out endless logistics, but the hot spell is breaking, and this morning we finally started at a new school. So here we are, at least some of us, for now. Papa, also known as Abdurrahman, Nico and Sir, will be coming home from work in the evening and will probably want to go out to watch the sunset. And Nonna, my mother-in-law, has just come to stay, together with a pledge to start learning Spanish, which she claims is not so different from Italian, her mother tongue.
Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, I start my hifdh lessons with Hafidha Rabia tomorrow morning after dropping off Ibrahim. Then, Nani, my mother, will be with us again, next week insha’Allah. She’s been trying to teach me how to cook and start the children on Urdu. We also began reading the first surah of the Quran, Al Fatihah,  which seems auspicious and fitting.
This afternoon, we’ll re-read it in Arabic and English, and, if the children are up to it, we may even try to draw it. An immense book opens in front of us, and beckons.
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