Table of Contents
for Mom first, Allah second
MUHAMMAD WAS A PUNK ROCKER
I SEE MUHAMMAD
DOWN AT THE CORNER STORE
ROCKING ON GALAGA
GETTING THE HIGH SCORE
WHEN HE DELIVERS SERMONS
THE KIDS THINK HE’S A BORE
BUT WHEN HE SMASHES IDOLS
EVERYONE CHEERS FOR MORE
MUHAMMAD WAS A PUNK ROCKER.
HE EVERYTHING DOWN
MUHAMMAD WAS A PUNK ROCKER
AND HE ROCKED THAT TOWN
ALL THE PEOPLE IN MECCA
KNEW MUHAMMAD’S NAME
THEY KNEW HIM BY HIS FUCKED-UP HAIR
AND DANGLING WALLET CHAIN
THE KNEW HIM BY HIS SPIKES
AND SAID HE WAS IN SANE
BUT ALI KNEW BETTER,
UNCLE WORON’T PLAY THEIR GAME
MUHAMMAD WAS A PUNK ROCKER
YOU KNEW HE TORE SAIT UP
MUHAMMAD WAS A PUNK ROCKER
RANCHO STICKER ON HIS PICKUP TRUCK
WHEN HE WAS IN A DUMPETER BY HIMSELF
ALLAH TOLD HIM CRAZY
FOR MUHAMMAD TO SHARE WITH ALL OF US
ON HIS SIX HOLY STRINGS
and so on
“He lost his right index finger in a bet.”
“Are you fuckin’ kidding? What was the bet?”
“That he wouldn’t chop off his finger.”
“So he won the bet.”
“Yeah, but he lost his finger. And he never went to the hospital or anything. Ended up with a massive infection in his hand—like a swollen abscess the size of a golfball that would have killed him if he didn’t drain it.”
“Is he okay now?”
“Yeah but when he’s in salat and it comes time for the Tashahud, instead of the index he has to bob his
finger up and down. It’s like he flips himself off every time he prays.”
In a few hours they were both unconscious.
It seemed like there was always at least one person awake in that punk house every hour of the day, as though it needed someone on alert at all times. Quietly descending the stairwell after another of Jehangir’s parties, I assumed myself the sole bearer of that unofficial role for this shift. But turning into the lightless living room I encountered a scene that I believe, insha’Allah, will be forever subject to reevaluation in my mind. Even now I cannot say if it struck me as tragic, comedic or beautiful in a way that our imams would never fathom.
In the center of the floor, surrounded by wasted corpses of consciousness slumped into couches, passed out over each other and one who had thrown up on himself, flanked by littered armies of brown glass bottles and caved-in cans, an anonymous punk with dozens of hair antennas extending far from his head sat on the white cardboard of a pizza box. It was too dark to identify him but I probably would not have known the kid anyway. But I watched him for a moment; sitting on his feet, hands on his knees, facing the hole Umar had smashed in the cheap plaster with a baseball bat to indicate qiblah.
The kid bent forward in sujdah and came up with his forehead most likely wearing the chalky gray confetti of someone’s tipped-over ashtray but he went down again, and I could hear the movements of his mouth if not the words he said. Then he stood up for another rakat, hands folded across his stomach. With a glance out the window I surmised that it was probably Fajr time—staghfir’Allah—and I should have joined him, increasing the rewards of his prayer by twenty-seven times; but instead I leaned at the living room doorway and watched as though this salaat had been executed on all our behalf. When he sat up again, I made sure to dip down the hall before he turned his head my way in salaams.
One thing I have faithfully observed and noted about punks: they’re all legends, each and every last one of them, in one circle or another. Even if you never see them in the elements of their renown, even in a mere courtesy-handshake between friends of friends in a parking lot, you cannot help but feel an immortal vibrancy, a comic-book kind of costumed exuberance like that parking lot is host to a historic summit or a scene in ten thousand movies we’re living right now. At least that’s what I felt; but what’s a punk anyway? I’m not going to open that can of worms here but I will say that in the story of myself and this house I ran through many conceptions of the word, and grew confident speaking of
rude boys, riot grrrls, crust, Oi! and straightedge, and by knowing enough lingo to move comfortably in the culture, well, at one point seemed to make me punk myself; that is, if there are punks who major in engineering because their parents told them to.
Inevitably I reached the understanding that this word ‘punk’ does not mean anything tangible like ‘tree’ or ‘car.’ Rather,
is like a flag; an open symbol, it only means what people believe it means. There was a time in China when red traffic lights meant ‘go.’ How would you begin to argue?
I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way—the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.
I could go on but the most important similarity is that like Punk as mentioned above, Islam is itself a flag, an open symbol representing not
. You cannot hold Punk or Islam in your hands. So what could they mean besides what you want them to?
I crept through the darkness until finding the kitchen, lest that praying kid detect my presence. Turned the light on and the place looked like W had bombed the hell out if it looking for evil-doers. I made my way past an obstacle course of tipped-over chairs, empty bottles and miscellaneous garbage around the table to get to the fridge, finding it completely empty except for a carton from the Chinese place—of what or how old, Allahu Alim—and a case of beer. There was always beer.
“Salaam-alaik,” said a girl’s voice behind me and I turned to find a baggy ninja with various band patches on her flowing burqa. You couldn’t even see her eyes behind the fabric grid but I looked to the grungy kitchen floor anyway.
“Wa-alaikum as-salaam,” I replied, “wa Rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. I was just looking for something to drink.”
“There’s plenty to drink.”
“I was thinking, something
“Ah, halal. You need to be specific in this place.” She navigated around the table, grabbed a dirty glass, washed it out at the sink, let it fill and handed it to me.
“Jazakullah khair,” I said. She picked up the chair I had climbed over, stood it up and sat down.
“Have a seat.”
“Uh, I kind of have to get going, get ready for school in a couple hours.”
“Oh right,” she laughed. “Every time a man and woman are alone, Shaytan is the third present.”
“Yeah—I mean no, it’s not that or anything, it’s, you know, I don’t know if Umar would—”
“Umar straightedged himself into a sober stupor, don’t worry about it. He’ll wake up at noon, get all pissy that he missed Fajr and punch the TV.”
“If it’s just the TV,” I replied, focusing on the grid where her eyes would be, “it’s an improvement from last night.”
“I thought he was going to kill that kid. Fuckin’ macho pricks.” There was something about Rabeya’s language, or the fact that it came from
, that never ceased to unsettle me. And she knew it.
“Uh, did you make Fajr? Because I haven’t yet, and I don’t think the sun is up so if—”
“Sorry y‘akhi, I’m raggin’ it.”
“Oh.” I looked at my feet. Wa’Allah, what a filthy floor. “Well, I guess I’m going to.” I went over to the sink, took off my shoes and then my socks while standing on my shoes, rolled up my sleeves and proceeded with wudhu while the water ran over empty green Heinekens in the sink. Rabeya sat content knowing that none of my existing scripts for male-female interaction, mumin or kafr, gave me any frame of reference for dealing with her.
We never saw her face, which I think empowered Rabeya with a certain psychological leverage. However, not everything she did with said benefit would find such easy encouragement from tradition. While Rabeya was as staunch a Muslim as anyone there, it remained her own Islam as she saw fit to live it. This was the girl who jumped in front of the microphone at last night’s party decked out in full purdah to cover the Stooges’ “Nazi Girlfriend” through her niqab singing slow and spooky like Iggy Pop’s withered Old Man Mortality voice—“I want to fuck her on the floor, among my books of ancient lore”—the same girl who stood in front of our baseball-bat-through-the-wall-mihrab on Fridays to give khutbah and circulated handwritten rants on the sexism of both hemispheres in her self-published zine
I went back down the hall and into the living room. Noted the pizza box that had been a prayer rug—the praying kid was gone and the sky outside those windows was just light enough for me to see fully all the filth and ruin of the room, including the living ruin on the couches. The scene was enclosed in walls covered with punk posters, 8 1/2 x 11 fliers for local shows, stains, scuffs and around the smashed-in mihrab, various plaques and posters of Arabic calligraphy: Qur’anic ayats, 99 Names of Allah, a green Saudi flag wearing the anarchy symbol in black spray paint and so on—all of it mantled in that grayness which occurs just before the sun’s really out and hurts your eyes; those last gasps of night as it shuffles on out for a new day and McDonald’s prepares for the seniors with
their coffees and newspapers. Had the sun technically risen? Was it too late for Fajr? I had forgotten how the whole thing worked.
Came back in the afternoon and collapsed in a smelly beat-up recliner on the front porch. Hanging lifeless my right hand brushed against an empty bottle left standing by the chair. I half-wondered about Umar’s mood but was too tired to care. A pack of cigarettes rested on the porch railing. My eyelids pulled themselves down without any help from me; I was on my way out. Then Sham 69’s “Hey Little Rich Boy” came blaring from inside the house, meaning that someone had detected my presence. It was a daily joke as reliable as Zuhr’s adhan in Masjid Haram.
The screen door swung open and out lunged Amazing Ayyub the bone-thin Iranian smack-head in tight blue jeans and no shirt and a huge KARBALA tattooed in Old English letters just below his collarbone, dancing like a bald idiot on the porch and hollering along:
“HEY, LITTLE RICH BOY! TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT ME! HEY, LITTLE RICH BOY—”
to look at you,” I replied. “I want to die for like, a week and then I’ll be set, insha’Allah.” Amazing Ayyub kept on stomping and thrusting his fists in the air.
“HEY, LITTLE RICH BOY! TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT ME!”
I closed my eyes knowing the song would eventually have to end. Amazing Ayyub went inside.
Then the song started again.
“Ayyub, man!” He flew back out as though thrown and stomped the porch for one more round.
“HEY, LITTLE RICH BOY! TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT
ME! HEY, LITTLE RICH BOY! TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT ME!”
“Al-hamdulilah, Ayyub. Please, man, come on—my eyes are—”
“HEY, LITTLE RICH BOY! TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT ME! HEY, LITTLE RICH BOY! TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT ME!”
Then he went back in, the statement finally made to his own satisfaction.
With the porch to myself, I drifted through varying states of consciousness; it was that kind of tired where you’re not sure if you were ever really asleep but you couldn’t remember something that had happened five minutes ago, so you must have been.
The familiar refrain of
don’t drink-don’t smoke-don’t fuck
from Minor Threat’s “Out of Step” came cacophoning round the corner, accompanied by the static and pops of speakers pushed beyond their means. I knew I’d see, if I had the strength to turn my head, a charismatically war-torn pickup truck with the tailgate covered by stickers of various bands and a green one reading “ISLAM is the way.” Umar pulled up in front of the house and hopped out in all his Umar-ness, the details communicating his conviction which came forth as both admirable and irritating: the plain white tee stretched around thick biceps and a barrel chest, the shaved head of assumed militancy, the rhetoric of tattoos—big black “X” on the back of each hand, star-and-crescent on outer right forearm, Muhammad’s name—
sallallaho alayhe wa salaam
—in Arabic on outer left forearm, and then there was the kicker that I found myself studying intently no matter how hard I tried to avoid it: right across the front of his neck, right on his throat, a green 2:219.