The Night of Power
Layla-tul-Qadr—that’s what the Qur’an calls it. The Night of Power. On the twenty-seventh of Ramadan each year, Muslims mark its beginning with a vigil. After breaking their fasts at sunset, they retreat into deep and solemn worship until sunrise the next morning, imploring Allah to forgive all their past and future sins. It is the only night when those who pray five times a day, or three times, or no times, all congregate. On this night, Allah revealed the first verse of the Qur’an—the injunction “Read!”—to the Prophet Muhammed. On this night, He writes in His Book of Decrees every event to occur in the next twelve months, from natural disasters to the falling of a leaf. On this night, the gates of heaven swing open and the gates of hell swing shut. Angels descend.
On this particular Night of Power, when the ceiling fans inside Makki Masjid have stopped working and the smell of sweat has become overwhelming, everyone on Coney Island Avenue raises their hands in prayer. The beautician prays that her daughter stop fooling around with gora boys; the cab driver that his ex-wife return from Pakistan; the pharmacist that his only son remarry. Gora or sand-colored, another wife of any kind will do.
Some people pray like this, choosing to fixate on one request, while others recite from long wish lists they’ve prepared specifically for the occasion. They pray quietly, under their breath, in a mix of Arabic and Urdu and English. Though each prayer is a private affair, a conversation between the supplicant and Allah, neighbors know enough about one another’s lives that they can guess at what is being asked. Tomorrow, as he always does, the imam will insist that Allah leaves no prayer unanswered despite what it sometimes seems. If not in this world, He will deliver in the next.Still, as they always do, neighbors will look among themselves in the coming year for signs of His blessings and favor: a college acceptance, a childbirth, a pay raise.
Many claim to dissociate from their bodies during the vigil, and tonight the congregation is so engrossed that nobody notices the two teenage girls walking out of the mosque and down its cement stoop arm-in-arm, their khameezes clinging to their skin because the June air is humid and flat. Their brisk walk soon turns into a jog and then, just as quickly, a sprint. Both bite on their tongues to keep from laughing out loud.
Leyla, the taller and more bashful of the pair, the one who proposed the exit plan as a joke but is growing nervous now that the joke has become real, keeps looking over her shoulder as if they are being followed or watched, although she knows this is impossible given the night. She cannot shake the feeling that they are fucking up, and that this fuck-up will later have grand and cosmic consequences.
“If my dad finds out,” she says to Maryam, the other girl, stopping to catch her breath in front of the Gyro King, their destination for the night. She hates how she sounds—so small and unsure. “I’ll be skewered like a literal kabob.”
“The only kabobs being skewered tonight are the ones we’re going to make,” Maryam says, rolling her eyes. “Now let’s get inside.”
Leyla reaches inside the pocket of her shalwar, hesitating a moment before dropping the key to her father’s restaurant into Maryam’s outstretched palm. It is just past midnight, two hours after the Gyro King’s regular closing time and four hours after its holiday closing time, which is tonight’s closing time because it is The Night of Power, the most holy night in the Islamic calendar.
Illegal is the word that pops into Leyla’s head. What they are doing, she thinks, is illegal. She tries to grab the key back, but Maryam is already bending down. With a quick turn of her wrist, Maryam opens the door so effortlessly you’d think that this was her millionth time.
“The lights—” Leyla says. Because of course Maryam has found the switch in the lobby and turned on the lights. Because of course Maryam has completely ignored the fact that Leyla said they should use the flashlights on their phones instead. Because of course Maryam either does not care or realize that the last thing they need is someone from the mosque looking out the window, seeing the lit-up Gyro King storefront, and walking over to investigate—or, even worse, calling the police.
“Doesn’t it feel surreal?” Maryam says, walking over to the beverage cooler. She gets herself a can of Dr. Pepper—her favorite—and pops the tab. Bubbles spray forth, soaking the sleeves of Maryam’s khameez. “Like, everything is a little off.”
She is not incorrect. Without customers, the Gyro King looks foreign to Leyla—bigger and brighter—as if the girls have shrunk in size and been dropped into a dollhouse version of the restaurant. The green booths spacious enough for only four people, at most five, now appear in their empty state capable of fitting ten. Maryam walks towards one of these booths and sits atop the table, lounging like she’s on a mattress and not a hard metal surface.
“The place is ours tonight. No one’s watching.” She inches her body close to the table’s edge and starts swinging her legs. “Unless you count Allah, but He’s always watching, so it really doesn’t count.”
It always stuns Leyla—how at ease Maryam is. With herself; with her body; with this space, currently, that is not hers. Leyla thinks, Did her ass really just sit down there, where they put food? And then: She’d better wipe the table afterwards. Which of course will not happen. Leyla will be the one, later, who grabs a dishcloth and a spray bottle of sanitizer and laboriously scrubs while Maryam looks on. It is just the way that things are. Leyla has long ago accepted this.
Though they are both fifteen, Leyla is younger by three months, and sometimes she thinks these months make all the difference. Sometimes she thinks Maryam is more like an older sister than an on-and-off-again best friend, which is what she has been to Leyla for the past year, since she moved to Brooklyn from the Jersey Shore. The minute Maryam arrived, all the Pakistani girls at Midwood High tried to get close to her, and for obvious reasons: She lives in one of the nicer apartments, with air-conditioning and a balcony and a basement, on the border of Coney Island Avenue and Foster Avenue. At her old school, she had one boyfriend and several almost-boyfriends. Dyed auburn streaks run through her hair. In the right lighting, her eyes appear hazel rather than brown. Her parents are doctors at the new clinic next to Kabir’s Bakery, and they immigrated from Pakistan as teenagers, so though they still go to the mosque and wear shalwar khameez, they speak English so effortlessly that a blind person might mistake them for goras. Maryam herself is fluent in Urdu and has memorized half the Qur’an in Arabic, and because of this—and despite everything else—other parents approve of her.
Unlike the other girls, Leyla avoided Maryam like she was a jinni incarnate. Leyla didn’t loiter by her locker, didn’t ask for her phone number, didn’t invite her to the movies. She didn’t because she didn’t think that there was any point. She didn’t think that a girl like Maryam would ever bother with a girl like her. But—and Allah only knows why—one day Maryam sat down next to Leyla at lunch and just never stopped coming back. From buying mangos at Punjab Grocery to riding Deno’s Wonder Wheel, they soon started doing every last thing together. Now, Leyla cannot remember a time when her schedule has not revolved around Maryam.
Leyla for her part has pretended not to hear the other girls talking loudly about her and Maryam’s unexpected friendship. She has pretended that the amount of time they spend together is nothing special; though privately, on some days, she becomes overwhelmingly and uncontrollably giddy thinking that there must be something inside of her worthy enough for Maryam’s attention. On other days, she wonders if Maryam chose her by mistake or, even worse, as part of some cruel, elaborate joke. It is this mix of gratitude and fear and doubt that causes Leyla to overlook those moments (and there are many) when Maryam makes some offhand comment—about Leyla’s unkempt brows, say, or her severely juvenile taste in music—that in turn makes Leyla feel lonely and lacking.
As consolation, Leyla tells herself that Maryam has helped make her life fuller. It is because of Maryam that Leyla tasted her first drops of alcohol—cheap vodka poured from a Poland Springs bottle and diluted with water; and because of Maryam that she went to her first party—in a closet-sized dorm room in Brooklyn College, with lots of gora kids in barely any clothing, all showing off their gora skin; and because of Maryam that she had her first kiss—with Maryam herself of all people, who took her hand at another dorm party, their third or fourth, and leaned close to her mouth and said, “All the gora girls do it—don’t worry.”
Now, tonight, it is because of Maryam that Leyla is finally using her father’s spare key to the Gyro King, which he gave her many years ago and which, until now, she has never had the occasion—or audacity—to use. Maryam is the one who is hungry, the one who believes the Gyro King to be haunted, the one who has always wanted to sneak in after-hours.
“I can’t believe this was once an actual ass crime scene. Is this from the caution tape?” Maryam asks, running her fingers over a long, discolored mark that stretches across the wall, where white paint has peeled.
Leyla has never noticed it before. Above the mark hangs a portrait of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and framed postcards of landmarks in Karachi—close-ups of Clifton Beach and Zamzama Mall—that Leyla’s father brought from the Mohsin Brothers’ 99-cent shop next door. In a couple of months, to commemorate Pakistan’s Independence Day, Leyla will hang green and white streamers from the restaurant’s ceiling and tape crescent-shaped stickers onto the wall. All the businesses on Coney Island Avenue will do the same. It is a tradition that occurs every year and one that Maryam has been asking about non-stop because she has yet to witness it.
“I don’t know.” Leyla sighs. Maryam never tires of discussing the Gyro King’s infamous history. “I wasn’t alive.”
Leyla had not yet been born at the time of the scandal: the summer of 2002, when the Gyro King—then known as Kabob King—was in every headline. She has never heard the story of what happened, not in its entirety, because all the aunties and uncles in the neighborhood pretend to be deaf if the subject is broached. Even Raheela Aunty, who is a walking history book and who doesn’t believe in secrets, furrows her brows each time Leyla and Maryam probe for information during their parlor visits.
“It’s like he’s Voldemort,” Maryam said during her first week in the neighborhood, after she made the mistake of asking everyone she met about him.
All the girls know is this: His name was Ibby Sheikh, and the summer that the Kabob King’s owner hired him to work at the restaurant is the summer that the owner and his family were deported from Coney Island Avenue. Betrayal, Leyla’s father told her. It was a matter of betrayal.
“Tonight’s the night,” Maryam says, tossing her can of Dr. Pepper into a wastebasket by the cash register. The clink of the metal echoes in Leyla’s ear like a ringing telephone. “The night we find out more about what happened.I can feel it. Maybe we’ll find a newspaper clipping from 2001, or something. I mean, there’s gotta be something here.”
Leyla laughs. It is what draws her to Maryam. Her resolve. Her ability to make a story out of anything, even an empty restaurant. “There’s nothing here but frozen kabobs.”
The Open sign outside Raheela’s Beauty Parlor flickers on and off, though through the front window he can see that it is pitch black inside. She must have forgotten to turn it off before leaving, he thinks, pausing outside the parlor and peering in. Almost two decades later and still Raheela Aunty’s habit endures. In high school and even in college, despite knowing her absent-mindedness was the cause, he and his friends invented alternative—and often outlandish—reasons to explain why the parlor refused to fully close. Maybe it was possessed, they said to one another, and after-hours a group of jinn entered the building, partying until the morning. Whenever they walked by the parlor during a night out, often drunk or high themselves, they would stop in front of its blinking sign and yell, “Got any gin, jinn?” pleased with themselves for the pun. He wonders now whether he would even recognize Raheela Aunty or she him: thirty-four and bearded; slightly, if not unappealingly, overweight. He almost wishes he would run into her or someone else familiar—what would such a reunion look like? —but continues walking along Coney Island Avenue before the thought can persist. He reminds himself that he is not supposed to be here. He is only passing by.
Ibby Sheikh did not intend to get off at Newkirk Plaza, but when the conductor announced that everyone must exit the train and board another due to technical difficulties, he found his feet moving away from the other passengers and towards the stairwell. He walked straight out of the station and into the streets of his former neighborhood for the first time in fifteen years.He blamed it on muscle memory, but of course it was just the right combination of opportunity and time’s passage, buzzwords that his therapist had imprinted onto his brain and that sometimes slipped from his own mouth unbidden. When enough time has passed and you get the opportunity, you’ll go back home. Also emptiness, he thinks of telling his therapist when he shares the events of tonight at his next appointment. Opportunity and time’s passage and emptiness. It is the emptiness, the lack of any activity, that causes Ibby to stay.He would have promptly retraced his steps back to the station had he sensed the risk of identification, but Coney Island Avenue was conveniently devoid of people and cars alike.
A vigil was his first thought. Everyone was likely inside Makki Masjid praying for some reason or another. While vigils weren’t everyday occurrences here, they also weren’t unusual. The imam often called them when a community member or their relative was ill or in danger. Ibby remembers the few vigils he attended as a teenager: one for an uncle who was diagnosed with lung cancer, another for an aunty who’d gone missing.
He wonders what misfortune has brought Coney Island together tonight, and though he feels guilty, he is grateful that it has coincided with his return. While there are four more subway stops to his actual destination, he views the chance to roam unnoticed a sign that it is alright, even necessary, to prolong his journey.
“Train’s delayed,” Ibby now texts his mother. He types and erases and re-types the message five times before pressing send and hurrying along. He tells himself that he is only going to walk through the neighborhood once, quickly and quietly, before returning to the station. He is tempted to take pictures of the places he passes, places he and his parents used to frequent, but knows that this is impossible: Jaffar’s Jewelers, Punjab Pharmacy, and the Gyro King—his former employer, the reason for his departure from the neighborhood and the reason, tonight, that he wants to linger. As a teenager, he would buy several packs of Camels throughout the day from the pharmacy, during breaks from his restaurant shift, in order to flirt with the cashier, a petite girl with dimples high on her cheeks and a mess of dyed auburn curls that she loosely covered with a thin shawl. The memory first brings him pleasure—he misses this brazen version of himself—and then embarrassment because he cannot remember the girl’s name. “Will be at the hospital ASAP. Let me know when Dad’s out of the operating room.”
Ibby was alone in a bar when his mother phoned earlier that evening. “Ma, I’m with friends right now—can I call you later?” He had just started his second gin and tonic and did not want to leave it unfinished. No, she said. Not this time. As she began speaking, he thought, I’ll remember this call for the rest of my life, and he is right, though he’ll remember not so much the news his mother delivered as much as the sensation he felt after hearing it: relief followed, in quick succession, by guilt.
His father has had a heart attack. Four arteries clogged and then some. Quadruple bypass surgery is a hazardous endeavor but even more so given his father’s preexisting heart murmurs. “Seventeen percent,” his mother wept on the phone. “That’s what the doctor said. A seventeen percent chance of survival.” There was no need for his mother to ask; he knew what needed to be done. Ibby packed his best black suit and got on an Amtrak express train from Philadelphia, his home for the past fifteen years, to New York.
He called his boss at Vanguard and said that his father had died, that he would need five days off from sorting through 501k plans and taxes. (Five days: that’s how long he figured it would take for the funeral—Islamic tradition mandated that the body be buried within twenty-four hours—and for his mother to begin adjusting to life as a widow.) Would that be alright? Ibby asked. Of course, his boss said. He offered his condolences, asked Ibby if he was doing alright, all things considered. I’m holding up, Ibby said, privately allowing the thought—My father is dead—to settle as if it were reality. Best to accept and deliver the news now, he told himself, when it had not yet happened, rather than later. Best to prepare.
In many ways, of course, Ibby has long been prepared. Though he calls his parents, he does so infrequently. He communicates with his mother one-on-one, and with his father only when his mother is near enough to take the phone and mediate a conversation that inevitably evokes his youth and, as a result, inevitably sours. This has been their tacit deal, the way the three of them have managed to exist without terminating all contact. His parents never ask when they will get grandchildren (answer: no time soon, since he cannot manage to stay in a relationship for longer than two years), and Ibby never asks about his parents’ neighbors. When they speak, it is usually for five minutes at most and only to exchange pleasantries, mild and innocuous remarks about the changing weather or recently eaten meals. The one time Ibby broke his own rule was this past November, after the election, when he spoke to them—or, more accurately, at them—for half an hour.
“Stop wearing a scarf,” he told his mother. “Shave off your beard,” he told his father. “Do you want to have a target on your back?” He was frightened by how impassioned he felt and then frightened in turn by how quickly that passion subsided. The next time he’d called—which was the last time he’d called—was for the New Year and neither he nor his parents spoke of the advice he’d offered but returned to their neutral mode of speech.
In this way, for the past fifteen years, Ibby has managed to avoid physically seeing both his mother and father. Occasionally, he texts them photos of himself so they know that he is alive and well, and they send him photos of themselves in response, blurry selfies in which they are smiling hesitantly. It baffles him each time—their increasing frailty and wrinkles—and he promptly deletes the photos to prevent himself from obsessively analyzing them or becoming overwhelmed by shame. Initially, he created excuses for his reluctance to see them, saying that he hadn’t settled on an address or that he was too busy with work, and eventually his parents stopped proposing that they visit him or he visit them. “Self-protection turns a person into an extremist,” his therapist said of this behavior. “Pardon the word choice.”
The last time Ibby was with his parents they were all in a police station and he was nineteen. This was August of 2002—just before he ran away to Philadelphia with his then-girlfriend, a Puerto-Rican folk singer who got herself a job singing in some church and him a job sweeping the church’s floors; and just before his parents took their belongings south of Midwood, to a cockroach-infested apartment in Brighton Beach. Both moves were necessary. There was no way that he or his parents could remain living on Coney Island Avenue after Kabob King Gate, which is how the local newspapers described what happened. At Brooklyn College, where he was enrolled at the time, the other students nicknamed him “The KKG.”
“KKG almost got wifed up, can you believe it?” they said to one another. They were not exaggerating.
The summer that Ibby began working at Kabob King, his father arranged his engagement to the owner’s daughter, a girl four years his junior; a girl whom he eventually came to befriend and confide in about his romantic troubles; a girl with a sweet tooth and a shy smile who, like him, had no clue of the arrangement until much later. The owner and his family were in the States illegally; Ibby and his family legally. The owner wanted Mira to get a green card; Ibby’s father wanted Ibby to part with his gora ways—sex, booze, and drugs—for good. A hasty wedding seemed the obvious solution. They might have married, they might have divorced, Mira and her family might have been able to stay legally, had she not turned herself into ICE. Both families thought that Ibby had put her up to it, that she had sacrificed herself for his sake, but this wasn’t the case at all. He found out the way everyone else did, through a note explaining her decision. By the time Ibby and his parents were called into the police station for questioning, Mira and her family were already being deported. He didn’t get to say goodbye.
“Betrayed,” Ibby’s therapist said, once Ibby finally told the story after months of silent sessions. “You felt betrayed. You still do.” And maybe that was it, if betrayed meant exhausted and fatigued, tired beyond belief. Because those were the emotions Ibby experienced when he learned his father had been scheming behind his back all that time. Sure, his mother was complicit, as was Mira’s dad. But his mother couldn’t possibly disagree with his father—he had a bad temper and a mean fist when threatened, of which she was often on the receiving end—and the owner was simply going to the extreme length any parent would to protect his child. What excuse did Ibby’s father have?
“What did you expect, leaving there and coming here?” Ibby asked whenever he and his father got into heated arguments—about the rap music he listened to or the condoms he kept in his wallet, the bottles of Smirnoff that clanked in his backpack. “You wanted America? Well here it is,” Ibby would say, pointing his finger at his own chest. He used to have the stamina to stand his ground, the willpower to raise a hand in response to a slap. But after the aborted engagement, Ibby became silent and withdrawn, treating his father as though he didn’t exist because that is what Ibby wished were true.
The Kabob King was converted into a Gyro King shortly afterwards. Ibby’s mother had informed him of this on the phone nearly a decade ago, back when they spoke more regularly, once a month instead of once every six. She apologized for relaying the fact—she was no fool, she realized he might still be grieving that episode of their lives—but there was no one else around her who would appreciate it. “You understand?”
He did in some ways and he didn’t in others. He understood the overwhelming desire to share important details from one’s life with another—what human with a beating heart didn’t? —but what he didn’t understand was why his mother thought any information about the Kabob King still important enough to share at all. Over the years, he has come to view his parents’ fixation on the past with a combination of pity and frustration and, increasingly, resentment. “Then why did you leave?” he thought each time his father slipped into stories about riding a motorcycle along Clifton Beach and eating fresh mango ice cream made from the cream of his family’s cows. “If it was so good, why did you leave?” After the Kabob King scandal, when their neighbors began to view them with disdain and suspicion, Ibby recommended that his parents move out of Brooklyn entirely—to Jackson Heights in Queens or Edison in New Jersey, both communities with sizable South Asian populations—so that they might experience the same familiarity that they’d had for so long in Little Pakistan. But they wouldn’t even entertain the idea. It was as if they used up all their ambition on the first migration, as if they had been sapped of their energy and resolve, turned into shadows of the selves they left behind in Karachi’s airport.They settled on Brighton Beach, only twenty minutes from Coney Island Avenue by subway. Just far enough.
Ten years ago, when she mentioned to him the restaurant’s new name, Ibby’s mother had added that the new owner had changed the outside of the storefront as well. “As if there never was a Kabob King.” He had removed the green and white mounted menu display, exchanged the neon sign for a regular printed one, painted over the crown logo on the door.
“How do you know?” Ibby asked. “Did you go back?”
“I overheard at the meat shop in Brighton,” she said. “People talk.”
But Ibby can see now, standing in front of the empty and pitch black Gyro King, that the storefront is exactly as it once was. The menus and neon sign and crown logo have all remained, along with the dull brick façade. There is still the same ‘B’ Sanitary Inspection Grade poster plastered to the window, which the new owner apparently has not tried very hard to improve.
Ibby examines the restaurant’s menu board display, reading the familiar descriptions of meals and ingredients: mango lassi, doodh soda, gannay ka juice. He thinks that he could use one of these drinks right now, to offset the taste of gin still lingering in his mouth. Hethinks of the summer he spent here, when he was still a boy wearing a loose apron and a tight hairnet, preparing buttered naan and chicken biryani for seven, sometimes ten, hours a day. He thinks of smoking behind the restaurant while Mira, her hands trembling, held his lighter. He thinks that he will not tell his mother about the unchanged storefront, that he will let her believe the neighborhood has moved on in the hopes that she might do so herself as well. He thinks that he himself should move on from Coney Island Avenue and onwards to Brighton Beach. He thinks that he is ready, finally, to face his mother and bury his father. He thinks all this until he sees a sudden flash of fluorescence through the restaurant’s window and the two faces staring back at him—one frightened, the other wary; both undeniably young.
“Illness in the family, my ass” Maryam says to Leyla. Her voice is higher-pitched, like it gets when she’s excited or confused or, as she is now, both. “He’s an ICE agent, Leyla, I know it. And he’s gonna start interrogating us soon and we won’t even know it’s happening. Next thing you know he’ll go to the mosque and start rounding up aunties and uncles, flying them back to Pakistan. Tomorrow’s headline? ‘Delinquents Cause Mass Deportation.’
She grabs Leyla by the shoulders and slightly shakes her. “I’m sure Allah’s gonna be real happy with that. Real happy. Let me tell you.”
The girls are in the kitchen, preparing one medium-sized iced chai—fat-free milk and Splenda in place of whole milk and sugar—for the customer in the lobby. He is from out of town, passing through the neighborhood, on his way to the Victory Memorial Hospital in Brighton Beach because his father is ill. Or so he says. They were in the restaurant for hardly ten minutes when he appeared outside the front window, a silhouette peering in. Leyla is the one who heard the knock, the one who went to welcome him. Behind her, as she walked towards the door, Maryam was repeating like a refrain, “Are you pagal? Are you crazy?”
“We have to,” Leyla said. “You know the verse.” And they both do. On the Night of Power, the Qur’an decrees, hospitality is required. Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers. “We’ve already pissed off Allah more than enough.” she said. “We can’t just ignore him.”
Usually Leyla is the more cautious of the two—more hesitant and observant of rules—but tonight, she realizes in the kitchen, her deference to a higher authority has inverted their usual roles, and this thought unsettles her.
“Why do you have to look for ulterior motivations in everything?,” Leyla now says. The lack of sleep must be getting to her. She feels dizzy, possessed. “He’s thirsty, Maryam! Thirsty. Nothing more, nothing less.”
She opens the fridge and finds a carton of two-percent milk—close enough to skim—but notices that the expiration date has passed a couple of days before. She sniffs the inside and, satisfied, pours some into a mug. “He’s practically a literal refugee. And practically speaking, Allah would not be happy if we closed the door on a refugee.”
Leyla’s own speech exhausts her. She worries that the man has heard her yelling through the kitchen doors. Chastened by the shock on Maryam’s face and frightened by her own outburst, she hesitates and, lowering her voice, gives a soft laugh. “I mean, come on, Maryam. He’s brown—he can’t be an ICE agent. That’s like, betraying your own kind.”
“Well obviously he’s brown,” Maryam says, shaking her head. “It’s called being undercover. If he were gora, it would be too obvious. The whole point is that he looks like one of us so he can blend in.”
Leyla considers the possibility. It’s true that ICE agents have been knocking on their neighbors’ doors lately, and men have been disappearing. Already, Farah’s Fabrics has been shut down because her husband, a cab driver, was taken in the middle of the night. The same happened to Khalid Uncle, one of the grocers at Punjab Pharmacy. Gone just like that. Left a pregnant wife and a toddler behind. But Leyla doesn’t think the man outside capable of breaking apart families in this way.
“I mean, just look at him,” she says to Maryam, rising on her tip toes to examine him through the window in the kitchen’s door, sitting at one of the booths.
His head is bent down towards his lap—likely because he is scrolling through his phone—and Leyla can see the beginnings of a bald patch forming. His hair is thinning in the front. There’s some silver in his beard and the button-down he’s wearing is a size too small, tight near his waist. He is not unattractive, Leyla thinks, just a decade past his prime. He looks to be no younger than thirty and no older than forty. At first Leyla assumed he wasa cousin, a nephew, a relative of someone from Coney Island. She could have sworn that Raheela Aunty mentioned her sister’s son-in-law would soon be visiting when Leyla went to her parlor for a trim last week.
“He looks entirely ordinary,” Maryam says. She rips three packets of a generic artificial sweetener and pours them into the mug, one after another. Tiny white grains spill onto the counter. “And ordinary is suspicious.”
“We’re both nineteen,” one of the girls—Leyla—says to Ibby.
“Except I’m three months older,” says her friend, who speaks in the same vocal fry as all the girls he ever dated as a teenager. Maryam is her name, and Ibby can tell from the way she is twirling a curl around her finger and leaning over the booth table that, of the two, she is the one used to getting attention, the one used to being seen. He can also tell that the girls are lying. Not about the three months—that much Ibby figures is true because of how Leyla grimaced at Maryam’s interjection—but about their age. They look to be about the fourteen, fifteen at most. That they are not telling the truth, or at least the full truth, relieves him. It makes him feel less guilty about his own dishonesty. It is like they have all mutually agreed to deceive.
They have told him that they are about to begin their second year at Brooklyn College, where they study psychology with a focus, for Laila, in child development and a focus, for Maryam, in addiction.He has told them that his name is Moe—short for Muhammed, a generic enough name for a Pakistani-American man and thus a safe alias—and that he is passing through Coney Island Avenue on his way to a hospital in Brighton. He used to have a cousin who lived in the neighborhood, he explained, and because of this has been to the Gyro King once or twice before; it is why he thought to stop here tonight, for a refreshment, before resuming his journey.
“You’ve probably met my dad then,” Laila says.
“He’s the owner.”
Ibby puts down his chai. He looks closely at Leyla, considering her blunt bangs and long, thoughtful face. She does not resemble Mira in the slightest, not physically, but there is something in the way her shoulders slope forward that reminds Ibby of the former owner’s daughter, his former fiancé. He wants to tell Leyla this—he wants her to sense the relation because it is not insignificant, he thinks—but he instead shrugs.
“Maybe,” he says. “It’s been a long time.” And then, because he cannot help himself, because he is paranoid, suddenly, that this new owner will appear and reveal him for who he is, he asks, “Where’s your dad now?”
“At the mosque,” Maryam answers.
“With everyone else,” Leyla adds. “Because of the night.”
Maryam shoots Leyla a look of pure malice, and Ibby understands that Leyla has said too much and that later, in the private ways of girls, Maryam will punish her for this mistake. It was like that for Mira, too, Ibby thinks. She would often complain to Ibby about a friend she had, a cocksure girl who said mean things one day and nice things the next, the kind of girl a teenage boy wants to date until, one day, he doesn’t.
“The night—?” Ibby asks.
“The Night of Power.”
Of course, Ibby thinks after a moment, shaking his head because it is now obvious to him. That’s why no one is in the streets. Not because of just any vigil but because of the vigil.
Ibby hasn’t fasted or observed the Night of Power in fifteen years now—even more if you count the fact that those vigils he did attend as a teenager he spent praying for a girlfriend or, after he got a girlfriend, daydreaming about her. He knows that it is Ramadan only because a Muslim co-worker inexplicably stopped eating earlier in the month. He remembers memorizing verses from the Qur’an about the night during Islamic Sunday School as a boy: “What will explain to you the Night of Power? It is the night better than a thousand months.” He remembers calculating that a thousand months was the equivalent of 30, 439 nights and, in awe and disbelief, repeating this fact to his parents.He remembers the night as a giant sleepover, when the whole community crammed into the mosque for up to ten hours. No one left the building—they didn’t want to and they didn’t need to. Some people like Ibby’s father literally brought sleeping bags to rest in during the brief breaks between prayer services. Other people like Ibby’s mother brought folding chairs to sit on when their legs grew tired from standing and bending. Mohsin Uncle brought cases of water bottles from his dollar store for everyone to drink. Kabir Uncle brought bags full of pastries from his bakery for everyone to eat.
What Ibby found curious was how kind neighbors were to one another during this period. You wouldn’t hear a bad word from a single mouth. Anyone would have cut off their arm in charity if asked. But then, as if on Allah’s command, as soon as the sun rose the next morning, his father would say, “Did you see Rafeeq wearing a stained khameez?” And his mother would nod. “His wife, too.” And when Ibby walked along Coney Island Avenue the next day, buying cigarettes from the pharmacy or mangos from the grocery shop, he would overhear similar sentiments. “Sarah fell asleep halfway through prayers. Allah have mercy. What a waste.” It was as if a spell had been cast on the neighborhood and then, just as quickly, lifted.
“And you’re spending the night here?” he asks the girls. He means the question as a joke, but again Maryam gives Leyla that look. He feels guilty. “I’m glad that you’re here. I mean—” He blushes. “For the chai.”
“We’re here to pick up sweets to bring back to the mosque,” Leyla says. “You came just in time.”
After he first moved to Philadelphia, Ibby’s mother used to call and tell him that “the big night” had arrived and that he should conduct himself accordingly. “Pray for yourself, and me, and your baba.” He didn’t know when exactly she stopped calling, but she had, likely realizing that he persisted in whatever he was doing at the time of her call: watching television, drinking gin, playing pool. Though they now pray in the privacy of their living room rather than in the mosque, his parents have steadfastly continued to observe the holiday. And tonight, he thinks, is likely no exception. He can picture perfectly what is happening inside the hospital: his mother pulling a prayer rug out of her tote bag, laying it down beside her father’s empty bed, prostrating and pressing her forehead on the cloth in worship, until he returns. She has always carried multiple rugs, should she or those around her feel compelled at any moment to commune with Allah. When Ibby moved to Philadelphia, he brought with him a gold and crimson-colored one—intricately woven by a Pakistani tailor and decorated with the imprint of a minaret—which he then affixed to the wall. “A man with style,” women often said, raising their brows in mild amusement whenever he invited them back to his apartment, barren of any décor save for the rug. He learned early on to find the aesthetic use in his religion. The prayer beads his mother gifted him one Eid he wore as a chain during his clubbing phase; the fez hat as part of an Aladdin costume during Halloween season.
The gin and tonics from earlier in the evening have fully settled in his body. How is it that just four hours ago he was watching a Manchester United game in a bar? His head is beginning to throb—the sensation is a dull and not unpleasant one—and his stomach is beginning to grumble. He realizes that he hasn’t eaten since lunchtime. The girls have moved on from talking about The Night of Power to some psychology course they’re taking, but Ibby has stopped listening, getting by with a nod every so often and a “huh, you don’t say.” When he does register their words—bits about an adulterous professor and Freudian slips—he experiences a shock like an electric jolt that pulses through his brain, reminding him that he has a body and it is here and it will soon be at a hospital and then, eventually, a cemetery. He wonders where his father would want to be buried—close by Brighton Beach, or Coney Island? Perhaps Karachi? He thinks of the cost of caskets, of casket sizes, of casket material—mahogany? steel?—and makes a mental note to google all this information later, on his phone, in the subway, after he leaves the restaurant.
“Listen,” he says. Ibby only realizes that he’s spoken aloud once Maryam pauses in her speech and Laila looks at him expectantly. His own voice seems to him distant and unrecognizable. He feels stoned though the last time he smoked weed was more than a decade ago, as a twenty-something-year-old on a frat rooftop celebrating Obama’s first election. For a moment, he pictures himself as that young man with these girls—passing a bong, blowing rings in each other’s eyes, chanting Yes We Can!, secure with their place in the world. But the image quickly fades and he becomes embarrassed by the pleasure—however fleeting—that he derived from it. “Can I have some food?”
“The key is to dip the kabobs in lemon juice beforehand,” Moe says. “Doesn’t matter what the directions on the box say.” He wipes his hands on the apron he’s put on, the one that Leyla’s father usually wears. “It makes them extra savory.”
The three of them are in the kitchen, in front of the long center counter. Moe is chopping onions, Leyla is mixing a salad, and Maryam is observing from afar since the onions are making her cry. Seeing the tears shocks Leyla and then pleases her. Even if they are technically fake, it is the only thing she has that Maryam doesn’t, this resistance.
“Good dressing choice,” Moe tells Leyla, reaching over to pick out a cucumber from the bowl in front of her. There are tufts of black hair on his knuckles and Leyla can feel that they are stiff and prickly when his hand grazes her arm.
They are here because Moe wanted kabobs. When Leyla admitted to him that she and Maryam didn’t actually know how to cook, he shrugged. “I can make them myself.”
He seems to know where everything is—the cutting board, the blender, the special chef’s knife. “I used to work at a restaurant,” he explains. “In Philly.”
Leyla has never been inside the Gyro King’s kitchen, has never stood this close to a man, has never told this many lies. The lies thrill her. She did not think herself capable. It frightens her, how easily she can blend fiction and fact, and she wonders if others find it as easy too. She and Maryam have been creating whole personalities for themselves all night, alter-egos that are clever and college-aged. Her head is dizzy with possibility. Is there a difference, she thinks, between seeming and being? Does there have to be?
“Are these for the Pakistan Day Parade?” Moe asks, nodding his chin towards a plastic container—filled with green and white utensils, cloth napkins, and dishes—that is in front of one of the cabinet doors. He directs the question towards Maryam, who blushes.
“I think so,” she says, looking down at her sandals and then sideways at Leyla.
Leyla has seen how Maryam acts in front of boys, both gora and brown. She tosses her hair, thrusts her hips, modulates her voice between high and low. These tricks work—very well, in fact—and Leyla is usually left wondering how best to emulate them. But tonight, they seem to her clumsy and awkward, inelegant.
“They are,” Leyla says. “My dad’s gonna start using them next week, when it’s closer to the day.” The parade takes place every August 14th, on Pakistani’s Independence Day.
“Does Bashir Uncle still spray-paint his cab green for a week?”
Leyla laughs. The temporarily green cab is a sight on Coney Island Avenue. “The color lasts for longer, sometimes two weeks.”
Moe shakes his head and smiles. “I remember. I’ve been to a few parades because of my cousin. And Raheela Aunty, does she still give people tattoos of the Pakistani flag at the stand?”
“Raheela Aunty gives tattoos?” Maryam asks. “That sounds fake.”
“Not actual ones,” Leyla says, not even irritated that Maryam has interrupted her conversation with Moe. When she was little, she would ask Raheela Aunty to tattoo the flag all up and down her arms and legs. “Just with a special henna cone.”
Moe smiles. “I remember.”
Leyla wants to ask him what else he remembers, but his phone vibrates and, after he looks down at the screen, his face turns blank.
“I have to go,” he says.
He feels the emptiness in his pocket only after he has left the Gyro King and passed Raheela’s parlor. Did he even remove the wallet from his pocket at all in the restaurant? For a second, he wonders if the girls might have stolen it, but then becomes ashamed at the thought. He knows this isn’t possible, but he is desperate for the night to unfold differently, and a trip to the police to file a theft would provide a welcome divergence from what awaits him. When he does return to the Gyro King, after Leyla has given him his wallet, he considers ordering another chai, re-reading then deleting the text message from his mother, pretending that the night will not end or that it never began. But Leyla does not give him this option and for that he is grateful.
“We’ll be off soon ourselves,” she says. “Enjoy the rest of the night—or what’s left of it.”
“Definitely an agent,” Maryam says. “No doubt about it. That dramatic ass exit? And then his dramatic ass return? I could have written the script myself.”
Half an hour has passed since he left for a second time but the girls are still sitting in the booth, as if awaiting his arrival once more. The sky is changing color like a healing bruise, from black to purple to light blue. Soon, the sun and the angels will rise, and the vigil will end. Before then, Leyla and Maryam will have to clean the dishes, replace the dirty napkins, rearrange the tables, return to the mosque. But, Leyla thinks, staring out the window, there is still time. There always is. Outside, the moon hangs like a smirk in the sky and she has the sense that Allah has placed it there just for her.
“Definitely,” she tells Maryam, nodding. “No doubt.”
Leyla can hear the falseness heavy in her words, but she knows that she needs to say them. She knows that her affirmation is required for tonight’s events to turn into a story—which, she knows as well, is what it will soon become. She knows that in the coming days and weeks she and Maryam will go over the details of their night in the Gyro King and will together form a version of what happened, though the details will vary, ever so slightly, each time they relay it: how tall he is, the color of his eyes, where his wrinkles imprint themselves on his face. Once the school year begins, they will whisper this story to their friends in the locker room in hushed voices, warning that it best not be repeated, though they fully expect—and hope—that it is. Enough time will have passed that, should the story reach their ears, their parents will be too preoccupied with other anxieties, more urgent and present ones, to reprimand them as they might have formerly done. The girls will laugh at their good fortune, and then, eventually, they will stop repeating the memory in favor of other ones because there will be many more fleeting encounters with older men, many more nights spent praying, or neglecting to. The story of tonight—the one spread far and wide—will become, in Laila’s mind, indistinguishable from these. She knows this. She knows, also, that there is an alternate story of the evening, separate from the one articulated aloud, that she will privately form in the coming days and weeks, and that she will remember with astonishing clarity.
“Imagine if you had opened his wallet,” Maryam says. “Maybe you’d have seen a badge or something.”
“Maybe,” Leyla says.
He had left his wallet on a counter in the kitchen, which Laila realized while cleaning, and which he realized too, shortly after leaving. When he returned, it was sheepishly; and when he departed a second time, it was as abruptly as the first. (Later, when Leyla revisits this night, which she periodically will from time to time—long after she and Maryam have stopped speaking because of a minor disagreement that turned into a major one—she will locate in these double exits a timeline of the entire night: prolonged and stretched out, reluctant to end.)
Imagine if you had opened his wallet.
She felt her fingers tingle as she picked out the card—small and rectangular-shaped—and the tingling did not stop even after she closed the wallet’s tattered folds.
“Ibrahim Sheikh,” it read. “Vanguard Investment Analyst.”
His name was Ibby Sheikh.
When she returned the wallet to Ibby, the business card resting in the pocket of her khameez, she expected him to feel that it had become lighter and to accuse her of making it so; and when this didn’t happen, when instead he simply put it in his pocket and left, she expected him to enter the Gyro King for a third time, to retrieve yet another one of his misplaced items. But this didn’t happen either.
Since Ibby’s final departure, Leyla has been searching for a way to explain to Maryam the truth—that the stranger they encountered was no stranger at all. But she doesn’t know that the words exist, and this thought exhausts her. She feels weary and irritated, alone with the knowledge of Ibby’s identity, and even more weary and irritated that Maryam does not recognize what has happened, gradually, over the course of the night: that she has become the sort of girl who opens wallets and possesses secrets. She thinks, We’re strangers, the two of us, and Maryam doesn’t know it yet but I do.
“ICE agents probably don’t have badges anyway.” Through the window Leyla can see that the smirking moon has disappeared. “Hurry,” she says to Maryam, rising from the booth. “The night’s ending.”
Although he has never once stepped foot in it, the hospital room appears familiar because of how frequently, throughout the night, he has been imagining the scene: his mother kneeling on the prayer rug placed by his father’s bed; the nurses looking on, sharing a sad smile between themselves. He feels the way he used to after returning home late from a party, passing by Raheela’s parlor. Groggy but conscious, his body aching from whatever toxins he ingested. He tries to recall the faces of the girls he left behind at the Gyro but they are already beginning to blur.
“Baba,” he says, but his father cannot hear him. Not yet, because it will take another four hours until he awakes from the anesthesia.
“Seventeen percent,” his mother cries from the prayer rug. She has gained weight in the middle and her hair is more gray than chestnut, which is how he has been remembering it. When Ibby entered the room, she rose at once from the rug to embrace him but returned to prostrating just as quickly. “Seventeen percent, they said, but Allah make it one-hundred.”
Ibby stands at the edge of the bed. Tears form in his eyes but don’t fall. They will come later—the tears, along with the words. There is much that he has said and much that he has left unsaid; and now, watching his father’s chest rise and fall in sync with the lines on the heart monitor, he knows there is much that he will have to say. But there is still time, he thinks, until then. There always is. For the moment, he goes to kneel beside his mother on the rug, praying into the silence before the night comes to pass.