Nazanine lifts her squirming four year old into a grocery cart and pushes it warily into the store. Weaving to the left and then to the right. Avoiding the other shoppers. The store is busy. Filled with hurrying, impatient people. The lights are bright, and the merchandise shiny. Abdullah smiles delightedly and babbles away in her ear, reminding her of what he likes, and what he wants to buy. Nazanine smiles back and keeps walking.
I wonder how long it’s going to take Waseem to bring Ammi and the kids in? The parking lot is packed. What if he doesn’t find parking? Was it a good idea to shop at this time?
“Pasta! I want bow-ties and rainbows!” Abdullah orders it all delightedly. He loves to grocery shop. Nazanine stops the cart and obliges her youngest as he chooses what pasta he would like to eat this week. The many and varying multitudes of pasta are stacked one over the other, towering over Nazanine’s small frame and her even smaller child. The grocery cart would be filled with these multitudes if Abdullah had his way. He loves pasta. Abdullah reaches over, and Nazanine pushes him forward. Heading for the produce.
Maybe I should have brought Hamza and Hadiyah into the grocery store. Kept them with me. Or, maybe I should have just kept them, at home, with me.
As she maneuvers the cart, Nazanine glances towards the store entrance, repeatedly. The brightly lit, big-box store yells its name at her. The branding is everywhere. Naz searches past it at the faces of the entering customers. Looks for Waseem’s familiar face. Her husband should have parked the car by now.
Green apples, avocados, bananas…
To distract herself from her worry, Nazanine mentally repeats what she needs as she approaches the produce. The colourful displays attract Abdullah. He doesn’t need any distracting. He’s in his favourite place. He drinks it all in. Reds, and oranges, and greens, and yellows. He laughs and does not stop talking. Nazanine smiles absently at her baby. No, her big boy, as she swipes at a stray, lock of hair that keeps slipping out of her hijab. She moves forward through the rainbow. Her son chattering in her ear.
Abdullah reaches over and tugs at his mother’s headscarf as she looks for the biggest, brightest, greenest apples. Her oldest, Hamza hates fruits and vegetables. Finally he has found a fruit he likes, and so Nazanine is determined to pick the best ones for him.
Abdullah pulls on his mother’s hijab once again, more insistently this time. “Oranges?” He smiles into his mother’s face and pulls it closer to his. “Nope, sorry buddy. You don’t eat them. You only squish them. Not this time. We’re getting bananas remember?”
“But I like squishing! Okay, Mama,” he says resignedly, “I like bananas too.”
“Good boy. Just don’t squish them.” Nazanine pushes at the pesky hair again with one hand, and bops her boy’s cheek with the other. She begins to move forward again. Abdullah giggles and bops back.
We need bagels. Where are they? Where is Waseem? Did something happen?
As Nazanine begins to walk towards the bread aisle, a pair of arms lock themselves around her waist, blocking her movement. Her body stiffens. Then, she feels a familiar face press itself into her stomach.
“I found you Mama!” It is Hadiyah. Nazanine feels herself soften. Her little girl beams up at her, excited.
Easy Naz. They’re here. Finally. Now we can finish up, and go home.
“How did you find me sweetheart? I thought you guys were lost! What took so long?” Naz runs her hand along her daughter’s silky, black hair. Beams back at her middle child. Looks expectantly at her first, her Hamza.
“Papa wanted to find a spot closest to the store, so Daddie wouldn’t have to walk so far.” Hamza, her ever serious, ever curious nine year old, announces.
“I held Daddie’s hand! I did!” Her grandmother is her favourite person in the whole world, and, Hadiyah hates being left out of any conversation her big brother is in. She can do anything he can. Her mama tells her that. All the time. And because her mother says so. She knows she can.
“Good girl!” Nazanine gushes. Hadiyah grins and looks behind her mother. Daddie, her grandmother, is lumbering slowly towards them. She watches as her Daddie’s blue, robe-like abaya billows out around her as she walks. Hadiyah thinks she looks majestic.
Naz shifts her gaze from her daughter to Ammi. She sees that her mother-in-law’s big, brown eyes are laughing as she looks adoringly at her son with whom she has entered the store. Naz knows that, under the niqab covering the lower half of her face, Ammi is smiling. Naz knows to look for the faint outline. She can see the smile. Knows its there, even if others won’t see it. Ammi enjoys family outings. Even, if it is a short trip to the grocery store, like today.
“What’s left on the list Nazanine?” Waseem inquires, as he and his mother stroll to where his wife and three children stand. He glances around at the columns of cereal boxes that surround his family. The choices; the sizes, the flavours, seemingly endless. His eyes, so similar to his mother’s, dance with mischief above his beard. He smiles at his wife and Abdullah, who is pointing determinedly at an unappetizing box of plain oatmeal. He wants his mother to buy it. All of it. Naz smiles back. She knows parking was just an excuse. Waseem wanted to take as long as he could so he wouldn’t have to deal with Abdullah. The little grocery general has very authoritarian demands. Culinary demands that must be obeyed.
“Yoghurt tubes.” Hamza declares solemnly, as he examines the contents of the grocery cart. That is the only thing left on the list. Abdullah nods his approval and points imperiously to where he can see the milk. He bounces up and down in the trolley. He knows where to go. Off the family heads to the dairy section. As they walk, they see that the line up to pay, is long. Very long. Naz looks around for the shortest line. There is none.
Great. Good luck waiting with the kids in that line up!
The last of the food items are selected and dropped into the cart. The family heads to the line up. There is no room to walk. Naz has to ask more than one person for room to get her cart into a place in line. Some happily oblige, others scowl. Naz resists the urge to scowl back. She says her excuses me’s and pardon me’s. She wants to scowl. She wants to go home. She smiles and says thank you instead.
Easy Naz. Everyone is tired. We all want to finish up and go home. I wish the line would move faster! I just want to go home.
In the line up, the kids begin to argue over who will take what, for lunch tomorrow. Ammi and Waseem shush them. Naz tries to change the subject. She looks around for something to distract her children with.
Magazines, chocolates, little toys...Toys? Shall I bribe them? No. I hate doing that. Besides, there’s nothing here that we don’t have at home.
Naz’s gaze lands on a tall man in a red baseball cap in the line next to hers. He looks annoyed at something. He also looks vaguely familiar. He appears to be South Asian, like her. Where has she seen him before?
Get a life Nosy Naz, you don’t know every brown person you meet...Still...Do I know him?
As Naz tries to place the familiar face, she sees that he is speaking to the woman in front of him. She loads her groceries onto the conveyor belt, pushes at her hair impatiently, and snaps something back at the man. Just a minute ago, the same woman had given her and her family room to squeeze past her. She had moved her overly full cart forward those few inches that they needed. She didn’t look happy then, she looks angry now.
As she watches them, Naz begins to catch snippets of the exchange.
“Why don’t you leave them alone? They’re not bothering you...”
“People like that. We’ve banned them...”
Amidst the children’s squabbling voices behind her, Naz’s attention shifts. Her gaze sharpens. Her ears strain to hear every word. Her heart begins to beat, faster and faster. Louder and louder.
“ISIS. Terrorists. 9/11.”
Naz’s heart is thundering in her ears now. She struggles to breathe. Her vision starts to go grayer and grayer as she hears each word. Her breath catches, gets stuck in her chest, as she hears each word.
Not again. Not now. Not in front of my children. I can’t breathe. I need to take them home!
Naz makes eye contact with the man. “Hum ko bol rahi hay?” She asks it in Urdu. Hoping he speaks it. Says it directly to him, so she won’t have to engage the woman. She hopes he will understand her.
“Hum ko bol rahi hay?” Is she speaking about us?
“Wow, so you’re all together huh? No wonder you’re defending this scum. Extremists.”
Easy Naz! Stay calm! Just stay calm. Just get home.
“Actually, the fastest growing number of extremists in North America are white, neo-nazis. Ma’am. We’re just ordinary people, doing our groceries. Ma’am.” She knows she sounds condescending. So Naz struggles to keep her composure, to keep her voice from breaking. Her children are here! She tries, but her voice rises, louder and louder with each word. She can’t help it. Her children are here. Her anger threatens to overpower her. Spill out of her.
Calm down Naz. Your children are here. Calm down! Oh, my Lord, please let us get out of here. Please, let us get home.
The kind stranger locks eyes with Nazanine. Pleading with her. Hoping she’ll understand. He shakes his head. He’s protecting them. He understands them. He raises one hand, in a peaceful manner, with the other, he calmly places a loaf of bread onto the conveyor.
“Actually, I don’t know her. We just happen to understand each other’s mother tongue.”
“We speak English around here.” Every word she says, accompanied with an angry hand gesture, the woman is red in the face. She narrows her eyes at Naz’s family. Her gaze lingers the longest on Ammi. On her niqab. The woman’s pale, blue eyes are like slits through which she stares, and stares. Her accusatory eyes, bore holes into Naz.
She’ll scare the kids. How dare she! Stay calm. You’ll scare the kids. We should have stayed home.
Naz opens her mouth. Ready to respond. Then, there’s a warm hand on her. Stopping her. Its Ammi. The faint outline of her mouth, under the material covering it, is hard, no longer soft and smiling.
“No. Naz. Leave her be. She’s not right.” Ammi’s voice is low, her Urdu melodious and comforting. Her hand caresses Naz’s arm. Her big, brown eyes, caress Naz’s face with their dismayed, yet, loving gaze.
Naz takes a deep breath and looks at her husband and children. Waseem, busy with the children up until his wife’s outburst, is confused. His eyes, search Naz’s. Questioning. He did not hear what Naz heard. Her children are scared. All they see is their mother’s, distraught face.
“Yeah, go back to where you came from.”
We’re from nowhere, but here! This is our home! Here!
Naz whips around, fists clenched, seeing red. Again, Ammi holds her back. Holds her, despite knowing that the woman’s angry outburst was likely triggered by the sight of her own niqab. Her Ammi, her mother-in-law holds her back. Her eyes plead with Nazanine, begging her to let it go. Telling her it’s not worth it.
I need to take Ammi home. I need to take my children home.
“Mama?” Naz looks down as Hadiyah whimpers. Her eyes are full of tears. Ready to spill over. Hamza looks up at his mother. His eyes are both confused and angrily aware. He will remember this. Only her baby is blissfully unaware of what is unfolding before them. Abdullah is busy, attempting to get his dad’s cell phone out of his pocket. He just wants to play.
I just want to pay for our groceries. I just want to go home. I’m so tired. I just want to take my babies, and go home. My home. My world.
“Waseem? Can you please take the kids and Ammi to the car? I’m going to speak to management.” Naz’s voice is shrill, but her words are deliberate as she speaks to her husband.
I don’t want my babies to see or hear anymore. They don’t deserve this treatment. My family doesn’t deserve this!
Naz watches as her family, her whole world, leaves the building. Hamza’s face stays with her the longest. He cranes his neck backward to keep his gaze locked on his mother. He doesn’t want to leave her. He knows something is very wrong; knows this has happened before; knows this will happen again.
“Is there a problem here?” Naz turns at the determined voice of authority just in time to see the angry woman hurrying out of the store. She gestures one last time to Naz. Threatening. Eyes raging.
What did we ever do to you? Who are you? Why are you so angry? I feel so sorry for you. I’m glad you’re going home.
Naz turns to the man. Sees his name badge, the word “MANAGER” printed on it. Smiles sadly.
“The problem just left the store, sir. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to go home.”
This short story was inspired by true events endured by the author and her family, at a grocery store in Montreal, in August 2017.