A 1987 Camper Story

PART ONE

This week they sent me to a camp. I think it was so that I wouldn’t feel so bad about Halloween. I don’t really miss the candy or the costumes but I love scary movies. One year my mom and I watched Poltergeist and The Exorcist in the same night. I remember feeling like our couch was moving under us. I watched that little girl’s room getting colder and colder. I reached my hand out from under the covers to get some popcorn and as soon as I crossed the threshold of the bowl, my mom grabbed my hand and said “BOO”! I jumped and tried to make sense of her glasses bobbing up and down. “Gotcha” was the word that finally got my heart to settle down. Soon we were shushing each other and trying to hold the laughter behind our teeth. We couldn’t hold it. Our joy filled that crispy October air. We got up from the sofa, turned the lights on and thought about what to do for my grandma’s birthday the following day. It was the next year when Halloween became the day after my grandma had died and the day before her birthday. Joy dried up like the stain in my grandma’s ash tray. My mom’s glasses bobbed from sobbing. My dad asked her if they could get back together. He dedicated himself to distracting her from grief and my mom dedicated herself to Allah for him. I dedicated myself to this diary.

When I got ready to come to the camp I was worried about whether I was covered right. I always feel like my Muslim girl clothes don’t quite fit the way they are supposed to. We go to this nice lady on Branford Place who greets us with a tea cup in one hand and incense in the other. She kisses me on both sides of my face but never actually on the face. Only our cheeks touch. She opens the shade on one of the tall windows at the other side of the huge room where she has rows of mannequins pinned with paper drawings of dresses and squares of different fabrics. Her name is Taalibah and her eyes are the same exact color as the tea in her cup. It doesn’t matter what color the tea is. Her eyes are always the same. My mom and I went to see her a few weeks ago. Sister Taalibah surrounded me in waves of gorgeous materials and swooped my head under a crown of a soft flowing melody of a chiffon headscarf we call a khimar. I thought it would make a nice Halloween costume and then asked Allah to forgive me for that. Just then Sister Taalibah looked at me like she had seen a ghost. “Tell him to leave you alone” she said. I gave her a confused look. She held her palms out for me to take them. She held both my hands and pulled me to her. “Just tell him to leave you alone when he comes for you.” My mom looked up from the thin slip of newspaper she was reading and called out “Everything ok?” Sister Taalibah seemed to slip back into her own body, said “yes…yes I just need more tea” and gave me a deep nod.

The camp wasn’t so far from our house. I could tell we were here when I was looking out the window of our car. One or two of the other cars on the road had little green and white stickers on them with messages from the Qur’an and beads hanging down from the rear view mirrors. We pulled into the gravel parking lot and headed into the building where people were laughing and greeting each other like old friends. My mom looked around and gave my dad her raised eyebrows. She folded her arms and headed over to a corner. “Go wait with your mother” my dad said. I watched him float with his side to side bow legged gait under an elegant white thawb that barely brushed his ankles. He adjusted his kufi before he reached a hand out to the tall man giving out bags to all the parents. I watched them smile at each other, caught an “alhamdullillah” and turned to join my mother. 

I feel really out of place. So many of the girls here seem to know each other. And they talk about things that don’t really make sense to me. They go to the same schools, lick the same gossip from their slender fingers, and stuff the same confidence in their leather socks before pulling their bangs out from under their khimars. They look popular. They like music but not hip hop. They talk about tv shows but not A Different World or 227. They talk about Growing Pains and that show with Kelly Bundy. Today I laughed at one joke they made about her and said “yeah I think Theo did that on the Cosby Show too.” The girls stopped and looked over at me. One of them broke the silence by saying “oh yeah I liked that show until they all started getting those weird hairdos.” Another started laughing and snorted “Oh you mean that Vanessa girl? I think that’s like a Black thing or something.” She looked past me at another girl sitting at the table. They smiled. I put my hand to my temple to feel for any hair clouds pushing out from under the scarf. I usually like to show my baby hair but I didn’t have time to really do them that morning. I looked around the dining hall at the other tables and saw some Black boys in the crowd. I saw a few girls who I knew were Black too. One of them was eating by herself on the floor by the back door. Well, she didn’t seem like she was really eating. She had a plate on her lap and a book in the fork-free hand. I got up, tossed my plate in the garbage and headed over to her.

I introduced myself to Khadijah and right away she asked me if I could hold her book for a minute. She said she had to go to the bathroom but she didn’t want to take it with her and she stopped, looked around the hall and said “well I didn’t want to just leave it out here.” I was happy she trusted me with it. The Bluest Eye I read the title to myself. The picture on the cover was a photo of a Black girl with her hair showing. She had ribbons in a pressed bob and she was holding a white baby doll. I watched my new companion dump her full plate in the trash, head to the bathroom for a few minutes and then come back over to me. She had a set of keys on her hip with a pink sparkling telephone cord to connect them. They jangled when she squatted to sit back down. I gave her the book back and then we heard “Allahuakbar” being sung from above our heads. We stopped talking immediately but most of the other kids acted like they didn’t even hear it. It got quiet and we went up the women’s steps to the muzellah. The boys headed to the other side of the long hall and went up the brothers’ stairs. They took their places at the front after washing for prayer. Khadijah and I settled in the back. Khadijah had tucked her book in a little pink Coach purse and grabbed my hand to stand next to her in the prayer line. One of the girls from the table who liked the Charles in Charge show came over and stood on the other side of me. A friend joined her and they both waved before we started. I smiled hesitantly. I didn’t know if they would like me after I pulled my khimar off and they knew for sure that I was a Black girl. 

After we salaamed the angels and finished our supplications, two girls came over to Khadijah and started talking to her. Deej, you made it? We didn’t think you would come. She introduced them as her homegirls from Connecticut. They were sisters-not-twins named Alnisa and Shakeerah. We discovered that we had been assigned the same cabin for the night. We all walked there together and Deej pointed across the fire pit saying “I’m over there but I’ll see if they can let me trade with somebody else.” “Ok…” we gave hugs and said peace to her just in case. We saw the counselor shake her head as Deej was talking to her at the door and then we watched Deej pull her book out of her bag and sit in the rocking chair on the porch. We waved and went inside. Alnisa and Shakeerah had not been by themselves all night. The other girls were gushing about the sisters-not-twins’ green eyes and sunshine skin. So, I think it came as somewhat of a shock to the other girls in our cabin when we began to get ready for bed and removed our head coverings. Under their scarves that edged right to the peaks of their eyebrows, the sisters-not-twins had thick rows of Black corn glistening with oil and threaded with beautiful beads at the ends.

I knew because I had heard the clackety clacks when we jumped up the stairs to the cabin but the other girls seemed shocked. One girl stopped right in the middle of her lecture on why it was ok for us to keep our Sweet Valley High books and dropped her jaw to the floor. That night in the cabin the other scarves that had been slipping and sliding all day finally told the tales of beach waves, scrunched hoops, and henna jobs gone too far. But nothing stopped the room like Alnisa’s luscious straightbacks that reminded me of the lady in my mom’s Essence magazines. Alnisa, who had to keep telling other girls that her name had an l in it, handed her sister some oil and asked her to put some on her scalp for her. And Shakeerah, who had mentioned several times that their dad told them it was fine to pray with their arms by their sides, pulled her own braids done in two perfect sections up into loose bun, placed a pillow on the floor below the bunk they had chosen and took her place behind her sister to oil her head. The staring and silence came to a stop. I could tell the other girls were more certain about me.

It was probably my nose but maybe one of them had seen my last name and knew. So when I slid my scarf off and revealed my two poofed French braids with the middle part slowly giving way to bushy brown waves at the center of my crown, they didn’t seem intrigued. I snatched the barrettes from the ends before anyone could see. Just when it seemed that the show was over, one other girl took off her scarf to reveal a copper mass of wooly twists. She had a double khimar one had been neatly wrapped in a low bun under a larger scarf with lots of tiny floral designs on it and a hijab pin holding it at the top of her head like a ponytail. It flowed elegantly when she walked. I heard her mother call her princess when she said goodbye earlier. The girl named Layla whose mother and father were in charge walked over to this copper princess, looked her up and down and said “oh are you one of the Newark masjid kids, too?” Masooma, the princess, wrinkled her eyebrows, walked away and started whistling the adhan. The whole cabin went silent.

Masooma climbed up into her bunk and kept whistling. Her pitch got higher and higher until one of the girls finally broke this new silence saying “whistling calls the devil so you shouldn’t do it.” Masooma stopped abruptly. One of the older girls said it was time for lights out but we could use our flashlights to read if we wanted. The cabin started to fill with giggles and whispers. Then it got louder until outside the window we heard a deeper rounder sound than Masooma had made. It took a moment but as the room went quiet, we each confirmed for ourselves, yes, it was a whistle. Someone said “come on guys…it’s not funny” Masooma turned her flashlight on and the little white stream of light was surrounded by her bonfire of copper curls. She held out her hand and blew on her palm. The next thing we saw changed our lives forever. I’m still afraid to lift my head. I still feel it standing there.

PART TWO COMING SOON