The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 20


As the waiter brought us menus, Absal asked me: "You don’t hang out with me as much as you used to man; what’s up?"

I mumbled an awkward response. "It’s been a tough time. Exams and all."

He raised an eyebrow. His eyes were off somewhere else, like they always were. "Yeah. All those tests, they must be taking a toll on you."

I realized we weren’t anywhere near exams week.

"Look," I mumbled, "I’m sorry but you can understand. Times have been tough."

"Have you had sex yet?" he wondered, casually. It didn’t sound like a big deal to him. That was Absal for you. He laughed: "I’ll be damned if I lost my best friend and he’s still a virgin."

I smiled but it was forced. 

We ordered sandwiches and soda. He checked out girls but not as much as he used to (though he never did as much as me). He was waiting for me to say something; friends always knew when you had to say something, and Absal knew better than others.

I casually let drop that I was attending Friday Prayers.

"Hayy," he said, "Everybody knows you like Sophia. Everybody you know knows you go to Azadeh Mosque. I guess it’s cool, I mean Friday Prayers are no big deal I guess, but this whole thing with you and Khattab. You are picking some odd company. What happened to us hanging out?"

I took a sip from my Pepsi and said, "I promise, wallah, we’ll hang out soon. Maybe next week even."

He leaned back, pleased. "Good! Finally, we can do something. I’ll get Salman too and we’ll all go out somewhere fun. Do you want to bring Sophia?"

I played with my straw. "I don’t know man, I don’t get her. She’s so cute though."

Absal looked at me in confusion: "That made no sense, Hayy. Can you imagine if conversations in books were written like you speak?"

"At least they’d be honest. Unlike her."

He leaned forward and thought for a moment or two. "You think she’s lying to you?"

"No," I said, shaking my head, "I’m saying she pisses me off with her moods, but I can’t get over how pretty she is."

"Yeah," Absal said, nodding, "She is very pretty."

I frowned. He started to play with his food; I laughed at his reaction. "I know what you mean. It’s just, Absal, she’s just really flighty. This isn’t the first time this happened to me. Remember the last girl, the light-haired one? She was great, but she suddenly dropped me."

Absal nodded, "You were always crazy about girls. That was your weakness."

He knew me well; that I forgot that was disturbing.  

I missed Absal, I cared about him a lot, and I was sad to see that I had allowed myself to stray away from him. He ran his left hand through his long hair.

"I think," he told me, like a best friend who always gave advice and rarely needed it, "That if you give yourself another year, you’ll stop these fluctuations. You’re on your way to figuring out who you are. I know when I told you that before, you’d laugh at me or act as if my comments didn’t matter, but you can see it yourself. You’re becoming who you are going to be for most of your life. This is around the time in your life when you realize you are not going to be a Saladin but, at most, a wealthy businessman."

I laughed. He leaned in closer: "So, what do you want, akh?"

He was mocking someone in a nice way.

"How do you know I want something?"

"Hayy, you couldn’t lie to a wall."

Often I practiced my lies against walls and inanimate objects. My dismal failures transferring those lies to people should have suggested that I needed a new strategy. Plus, Absal was the kinda guy who would know if I was planning on telling a lie.

"Okay, next Thursday I’m going to Azadeh for lessons. Cover?"

He laughed. He almost looked pleased. Almost! "Lessons?"

I nodded and looked away. That was stupid, Hayy, very stupid… There had to be undercover agents nearby, and they were probably keeping a close eye on me. So, doing what came naturally, I picked out a nice car driving by and followed it down the street. When my gaze returned to the table, Absal was waiting with a question.

"What happened to you, Hayy?"

I couldn’t find enough saliva in my mouth to explain. Suddenly Absal looked down. He was worried, confused, depressed even. I asked, gently, "What’s wrong, man?"

A smile lit up my face, in a bid to light up his. It was almost infectious. Almost.

"Everyone’s going this way. Or, at least, sometimes it just feels like everyone is. When I found you, I knew you’d do something special. I knew that this movement was around for a long time, but I never knew how to react to it. Maybe I should have done more, but I didn’t, for whatever reason…. And now you’re on your way. Maybe it was arrogance of me, and for that I’m sorry, I just never imagined you would forge a path on your own. But I always knew you would. Does that make any sense?" 

 I nodded. "It makes perfect sense, Absal. But look man, these are just lessons."

"Be careful," he told me, "Because you know what you don’t think could happen might just happen. I’ll always be here to help, inshallah, but just watch yourself."

The fact that he made mention to God with such seriousness perplexed me. Was he scared for me? Or did he want to sound religious in front of me, as sometimes happens when one person talks of God and the other wants to make it seem like he cares? I laughed. "I told you, Absal. Lessons. Nothing big. I’m not going away."

Absal stopped smiling. "You went away a long time ago, Hayy. A long time ago and you started drifting away. But that’s what was supposed to happen."

"Supposed to happen?" I was suddenly excited that he might tell me more about when he found me, more about the island, but he didn’t. He stopped himself, as he always did, and I was angry with him.

He raised his voice, till he was his over-confident self again. As if he had let slip his inner emotions for only a few moments, and now had to hide them again. "I’ll help you, cuz’ you’re my friend. But I can’t follow you. Not this time. Little Hayy is a big boy now [and he laughed, because he was always ready to laugh]… now he’s going for lessons." 

As Absal dropped me off, I gave him a long hug. Absal was the best of friends, and now I was using him so I could find a little more of myself. Perhaps this day was the last time we’d ever really hang out. He knew it and I saw it in his eyes. There was a sadness in his soul which possessed me. It melted into happiness though, when he said that he was happy to see the way I was going (and I knew he was being genuine when he said that).

But times and people change, and even friends go their separate ways. I appreciated what he did for me; he did it for no other reason than the kindness of his heart and for those days, long ago, when we used to share everything with each other. I felt, out of nowhere, a desire to go back to high school and stop there.

Absal released me and walked back to his car.

"See you around, akh," Absal announced. The engine started without waiting for me. It was the same sound it always made, but nothing else was the same. I hated the sound of it just for that.

I walked inside, hoping not to bump into anyone. My mom saw me and said she was happy to see me with Absal. Little did she know... I ignored her as I often do and I ran into the bathroom, where I ripped off my clothes and jumped into the shower. I must have been in there for fifteen minutes.

At least, that’s how long it took for the tears to stop. 

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