Once or twice a year a package would arrive at a post office box on East 54th Street, requiring a long subway ride and a small key to retrieve it. Back home in Queens, my sister and I would divvy up all the treasures inside: marzipan logs, “cat paws” of salty licorice, silk nightgowns, and pretty ruffled dresses. There would be a letter too, written on thin sheets on paper, relating the happy news of a new brother or sister, or a family trip to Spain, signed always “Baba.”
One year I received an extra special gift: a red velvet case that held a matching-colored book. A Qur’an, my mother explained. For years, she kept it high on a bookshelf, treating it more like a volatile weapon than the holy text it was. From time to time I’d climb on a chair to retrieve the case, lifting its golden latch to finger through the gilded pages of Arabic script, imagining myself a heroine unlocking the clues to some great mystery.
In college, I’d learn just enough Arabic to read some passages out loud, even though I still could never decipher their meaning. Then, in my senior year, I received a letter from my father that was different from all the ones I’d read growing up. It was filled with honest and serious language; words like Suffering; Loss; Destiny; and Kidnap that told the sad story behind my father’s sweet gifts. I understood for the first time the meaning of his long silence, which until then I’d mistaken for neglect. Like his own God (Allah), he’d chosen to be generous in his love, holding space for my sister and me to grow where Fate had landed us one dark December long ago, when two little girls disappeared into the night.