After three years of living in Winnipeg, the cold of a February morning still shocked me. My teeth ached from it as I shuffle-walked from Dad’s car to the front doors of Laura Secord High School.
I got to my locker as Mariam, my best friend, and the rest of the kids who took the bus stampeded through the front entrance. I was about to call out to her, but something in the way she darted past me — head down, feet moving quickly, as if she didn’t want to be seen — made me stop. Weird, I thought. We’d been texting each other all weekend. Why would she ignore me? “Hi, Sadia,” Carmina said as she breezed past me. She didn’t stop to talk, but headed toward the washroom, lugging her backpack. With a resigned sigh, I realized where Mariam had been going and why she wanted to escape notice. My notice.
My fingertips were still numb with cold as I opened my locker and grabbed books for my morning classes. First stop: homeroom. Only grade nine students at LS High School have homeroom. I guess they thought we needed the extra attention. It didn’t bother me. I liked my homeroom and I really liked my teacher, Mr. Letner, who taught our Global Issues and English classes.
When I walked into Class 9B, he was already at his desk typing on his computer. Mr. Letner was tall and skinny and had a beard, but was bald, which seemed kind of funny. Like, if he could grow hair on his face, why not his head? I’d been intimidated by him the first day of high school. He had a deep voice and towered over me. But I came to discover that he never yelled; he didn’t have to. He was one of those teachers kids were quiet for because most of the time we wanted to hear what he had to say. “Morning, Sadia! Have a good weekend?” I gave him a weak nod as I sat down at my desk, preoccupied about Mariam. I knew why she’d gone to the washroom. It was to take off her hijab before class started.
“Everything okay?” he asked, zeroing in on me.
“Yeah,” I answered, but anyone could tell things weren’t okay. I have one of those faces that you can read even if you don’t know the alphabet. Big, brown eyes, long lashes, and wide lips that I can squeeze and squish into a hundred different positions. Rubber lips, Dad calls them. I sunk lower in my seat and kept my eyes fixed on the desk ahead of me, corners of my lips turned down. I might even have sighed.
There was no point in talking about it to Mr. Letner; there was nothing he could do. Mariam had mentioned de-jabbing a while ago. I’d assumed it was just talk, but then one day before winter break, she’d gone to the washroom with Carmina and come back without her head scarf. I’d stared at her long hair and uncovered head. She looked so bare. The hijab was distracting, she’d told me, and she needed to concentrate for the test we were having that morning. A hundred warnings rang in my head.
Since that day, she’d been taking the head scarf off more and more often. Egyptian, Mariam had large, green eyes, wide cheekbones, and skin a shade darker than mine. She complained about her nose, saying it was too big and she wished it were straight and narrow like mine, but she was just being dramatic. Her nose was fine. Without her hijab, she’d toss her hair over her shoulder and throw looks at me that said I should ditch my hijab, too. I’d thought about it — how could I not? We went to a school where only a handful of girls wore hijab. It would be easy to look like everyone else.
But that wasn’t how I’d been raised, and neither had Mariam. Islam was clear: females, once they were old enough, should dress modestly. And for our families, that meant keeping everything but our faces, hands, and feet covered. I hoped de-jabbing was just a phase for her, something she was testing out.
I looked up as Mariam walked into the class with Carmina. Today, not only had she taken off her hijab, she’d also changed out of the long tunic top she usually wore and put on a tight T-shirt. I recognized it as one of Carmina’s; Hollister was splashed across the front in curvy writing. I kept my eyes down, trying to ignore her outfit. I could almost feel her waiting for me to say something, but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. If she was de-jabbing for attention, she’d have to get it from someone else.
“Hey!” Carmina said, drawing the word out and flashing me a glossy-lipped smile. Carmina is Filipino and has dark hair that hangs straight and shiny; she’s a shampoo commercial come to life. Even though she was aiding and abetting the de-jabbing, I wasn’t mad at her; she didn’t get why Mariam changing out of her normal clothes was a big deal. But Mariam did.
Mom had warned me about things like this. She’d sat me down before I started high school and told me that I might want to do things like Mariam was doing now. But she said it was up to me to make the right choice. I’d nodded. She’d also said it can be hard living in a place like Canada where so many people have different beliefs, but that was why they had picked it as our new home — because Canada was a place that accepted differences.
We’d left Syria just before things went haywire. Most of our relatives had already moved to the U.K., so we’d gone there first and stayed with family while we waited for our Canadian visas to come through. The position Dad had accepted at the University of Manitoba meant we’d be moving to a place we knew nothing about.
When I thought back to those first months in Canada, it made me cringe. I didn’t know anything compared to now. After the first day of school, my older brother, Aazim, had picked me up from school and held my hand on the walk home even though I was twelve and he was fifteen. I complained about missing my friends and living in a place where I couldn’t understand what people said. His first day of school had probably been just as awkward as mine, but instead of complaining, he comforted me, reassuring me things would get better. He was right, of course, but there had been some difficult days at the beginning.
The transition for Dad had been easier. He’d learned English in the U.K. as a university student and spoke with a British accent that he was slowly losing the longer we lived in Canada. Mom’s English wasn’t as good as Dad’s, but she worked at it every day, going to classes at the language centre and joining conversational English groups. She took it as a challenge to master a language that had nothing in common with Arabic. I knew it was her dream to work again.
In Syria, she’d been the head librarian at Damascus University. She and Dad would walk to work together after they saw us off to school. But in Canada, things changed. She became a stay-at-home mom, taking the bus to do her shopping and looking after our house. She called her parents and sisters often, FaceTiming them at their flats in England. When we went to the public library, she gazed longingly at the shelves of books, watching the librarians go about their work with hawkish interest.
Since we’d left Syria, I’d become more Canadian than I would have thought possible. With barely a trace of an accent, I was a top student. My memories of Syria were tucked in a shoebox under my bed, the connection to my home country fading year by year. I cast a quick glance at Mariam. Carmina passed her a tube of pink lip gloss, which she smeared across her lips. She turned to me, her lips shining like they’d been lacquered. “What?” she asked. It was a challenge; I could see it in the arch of her eyebrow.
“Nothing,” I replied, frowning at the thought of what her parents would do if they found out how she was dressing at school.