Strip joints, tattoo parlors, pawnbrokers. That's how you can tell you're near a military base, and the area around Fort Kirkley was no exception. Dareen had driven past this stretch of highway a few times and it was a repulsive, alien world to her. At least the strip joint aspect of it. Sad women parading around in bare breasts for drunk, sleazy guys. That was the picture in her mind's eye. She had seen ads in the papers. "Gentlemen's clubs," they called themselves. What a misnomer!
Dareen had never taken note of the names of these topless clubs, but Elly knew where Janie's was. Dareen was at least relieved to see it was one of the fancier-looking places, shiny and pink and white with chrome, almost like a diner except with no windows and lots of bright lights above. Elly was in a fiery mood as she drove them up, skidded to a halt as she parked, and stormed in. In a minute she was back in the car, still fuming. "I can't believe she did this."
Realizing that Elly would give Lourdes a piece of her mind in a moment, Dareen said, "Elly, control yourself. Take it easy. The last thing she needs is to be yelled at." Though Dareen really had no idea what would possess Lourdes, a shy, intelligent teenager, to do such a thing. She exchanged looks of puzzlement with Hillel, who was in the back seat and seemed embarrassed to be near such a place.
The door to the club opened and out came loud disco music. And out came Lourdes, her purse over her shoulder, but not in her usual outfit. She had on a minimal, lacy black bra, and tiny pink shorts. Very tiny, as low-rise and short as her usual jean shorts, hardly more than panties, and made of spandex stretching very low across the wide "V" of her delicate hip bones. And high platform thong-style heels. Coming out with her was a woman who looked about 30 or so, with skin almost as dark as Lourdes's and a blond wig, wearing a loose black dress.
Despite her changed costume Lourdes still had that shy walk, a shyness that increased as she neared the car with the realization of how she looked in her new outfit. She slid into the back seat and immediately took out a thick wad of money and held it out to Dareen.
"My first night. Muy bien. Two hundred. We can use it for food and for to pay the rent."
Elly looked at the money like it was a bottle of poison. "We don't need it. What has gotten into you?"
"She did good," the woman said, leaning against the open window next to Dareen. "Started a little slow, but the crowd loved her." She had a Latina accent. "They like shy girls. I'm Rosa." In greeting she clasped the hand of a still-puzzled Dareen, and glanced ever so quickly down at Dareen's chest.
"She's a friend old of Cruz, my big sister," Lourdes explained. "The old job of Cruz was here."
Dareen said to Rosa, "I don't want to sound like this, but Cruz did not do too well, from that Lourdes has told me."
"Yeah, she got into some bad shit. Mostly drugs, then she started to hook, so we had to fire her. But she got turned around. She stopped in a few months ago to say hi and she looked fine."
Dareen said, "I don't think this is a good idea for Lourdes."
"She'll be O.K. I'll watch out for her. She says she needs the money. It's better to do it this way, than some other stuff like Cruz did."
The door to the club opened again, loud music again, a girl in a bikini and very high heels called out. "Ro! Janie needs you at the bar." She darted back inside, to reveal a very large and very strong-looking man at his post.
"O.K.!" Rosa called back, then turned to Dareen and Elly. "Gotta go. I have a tough boss. How do you like her new outfit? It's from us. She couldn't go on just with what she had. Well, she could, some guys like that earthy look, but she needs a bigger selection. We have more... She didn't want anything more covered up."
"She's allergic to clothes."
"That's what she says. That makes her a natural for this work, doesn't it? Adios!" And Rosa hustled back into the club.
They drove home. Apologizing for the dramatic interlude, being that Lourdes would not be in Hillel's story, Dareen drove him back to the street in front of the old apartment to get his cell phone, which had bounced into a little alley. Then took him to where he lived, way on the other side of town, a modest apartment building near the University of Atlanta.
Driving back to Sherry's, Dareen was relieved that she seemed to have made a good choice in picking a reporter to tell her story. She had seen the Jewish Times at stationery stores, though she'd never had reason to read it. The headlines seemed to be straight news, though aimed at an audience that wasn't her. Very much "other side of the tracks". She didn't know any Jews, at least not well. She was turned off by the anti-semitic talk she sometimes heard around her relatives. Which was probably matched, she knew, by what Jews were saying about Arabs. It was a conversation she just didn't want to be a part of.
Hillel seemed conscientious, and said he'd talk to his editor and show her a draft of his article before it got printed. Actually it would be more like a series of articles. He hadn't settled on a title yet.
And, he was kind of cute. Dareen had had her boyfriends, but none with blue eyes. They were so interesting to look into.
It was now almost two o'clock in the morning and as she climbed the stairs to Sherry's apartment her thoughts turned back to Lourdes. Her teenage friend was lying on the couch in white bikini panties and her little bikini top. She was facing sideways on a pillow as she watched Spanish music videos, the sound turned on low, Elly being asleep in the bedroom.
Dareen kicked off her shoes and sat on the coffee table right in front of Lourdes. Being the youngest child herself, Dareen had never had to straighten out a little sister, but now it was time. She leaned over and turned off the TV then looked at Lourdes with as stern an expression as she could manage. She looked down at her own stockinged feet and fought her feelings of pity and guilt, sitting there fully clothed as she confronted the shy teenager who was confined to such skimpy scraps.
"Lourdes, this is crazy and stupid. You shouldn't be working at that place. It's not for you."
Lourdes had apparently thought this out. "I want to be useful. Now we are a little family. You take good care of me. I am 18 now. I am adult, I should work like you all of you do."
"You should be in school and get your diploma."
"I can't go to school."
"Didn't you go with Elly?"
"Yes and the principal he say no. Then Elly talk to him and he say he will decide. But is not possible. I no can walk around in that school with not enough clothes."
"You've got to try... How can you dance like that? Show yourself like that?" Dancing in a topless place was so degrading that only desperate or screwed-up women would do it. Not good girls like Lourdes!
"They have merengue music on the machine. I dance my three songs and I close my eyes and pretend I'm in Santo Domingo at a birthday party. I was always a good dancer. And with the other girls dancing I am not lonely. It is not so bad."
Dareen looked at Lourdes's big, earnest eyes and thought of her as a four-year-old dancing in a pink party dress for her adoring relatives. And now to come to this. The sadness was almost too much to bear.
Then Lourdes looked down. "I need to get more, how do you say, used to in front of the guys with my legs. And showing my... cuca."
"My cuca." The teenager's hand made a motion to her white panties.
Dareen's mouth fell open and her face went slack. "You dance naked??"
"Si, for the last song we take off even the panties. That is the rule there. They say a lot more money they give that way."
"Oh, Lourdes... you don't have to do this." Dareen felt her eyes getting wet and she leaned over to hug her young friend. Lourdes sat up and they held each other, Dareen imagining the longing that the feel of her sweatshirt must produce in the mind of the teenager.
"I want to, I have to," Lourdes said, her voice quivering. "I have to work, and there is no other job for me now. But I think of you, I think of you helping people and saving people, desnuda. NakedGirl, you proud of your body. During the last song I close my eyes and I think of that and then I am more strong."
Dareen sighed a ragged sigh through her tears and looked out the window into the night sky. Then she hugged Lourdes a little tighter as if to protect her from the world outside.
"You're crazy. They'll throw you out." That was Elly's first reaction, understandable because Dareen chose to bring the topic up right after they watched another Muslim cleric denouncing NakedGirl on Cobb. So Dareen dropped the topic of asking Elly to go with her to Al Hijia. It also wouldn't be fair to Elly. They might remember her from the times she went with Dareen after the pulse bomb attack.
So she brought it up with Jamal, who seemed more receptive when she decided to invite him instead. Jamal grew up in rural Mississippi and came from a pentecostal background. He was more liberal now. "The Bishop's heart was basically in the right place, but all he would talk about sometimes was how bad oral sex was, or about not eating pork. And he was about the same with women as Muslims are." Jamal smiled. "So it might not be much of a new experience."
"They're both Semitic religions," Dareen said. Jamal nodded. It was a useful term she had read. It meant Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jamal, lounging in the swivel chair at his desk, turned to poke the phrase into his computer and came up with several hundred hits.
Dareen looked around. Jamal had kept his apartment meticulously organized during his period of forced inactivity, and had done everyone's laundry while his female guests were out working. "Also," Jamal said, "I don't have a whole lot to do these days."
"You've GOT to let us chip in," Dareen said, for about the tenth time.
Jamal shrugged, but at least now he wasn't saying no. "What about what Lourdes makes?"
Dareen sighed, Jamal not being able to avoid noticing the heaving of her huge chest under the layers of blouse and sweater. "I suppose we can't let those big wads of cash collect under Sherry's couch. Maybe she'll agree to putting it in a bank account. I'll help her open it. I hope that job is just a phase."
"What I want to know is, how her classes are going. What's it now, her third day?"
Dareen shut her eyes. "That poor child. She so wants to learn. But if I had to go through high school in those little things, I'd die." Jamal had a quick thought of Dareen in Lourdes's clothes, the tiny bikini triangles stretched across the huge nipples, not even covering them. Then realizing it would get nowhere he cleared his throat and got back to the topic. "What, mosque is on Friday night? Tomorrow?"
"Are you with me?"
"Of course, Dar. Always."
She was wearing her burka, of course, and her veil. Jamal was in his best suit. When in Rome... after they entered and they left their shoes with everyone else's, he meekly separated from Dareen with a nod and went to the men's side. She had forgotten to tell him about having to separate but he took it in stride.
Imam Tahir seemed tired. And then when he saw Dareen he was very definitely nervous. There was that glint of recognition in his eyes, in fact everyone knew it was her -- Dareen Alkaras, a/k/a "NakedGirl", the scourge of Islam and the hottest topic in mosques these days. Dareen had never gone mosquing in a veil, at least not here, but when you see lots of women in veils you become able to recognize any person just by their eyes.
The Imam's sermon was about being tolerant while still following the right path and not the wrong path. He spent a lot of time talking about his main example, correcting a child who makes a mistake. Be loving but still be clear. Maybe Dareen was being paranoid but it seemed like he was talking about her and everyone knew it. It was more of a "conservative" topic than he was used to speaking on and she imagined the Grand Imam had someone here watching him. She felt bad for Tahir, this good and kindly man. Under pressure just because of her. After all, NakedGirl was from his congregation. But what else could she have done? From time to time she turned in Jamal's direction, a couple of times meeting his glance, and she could tell that he was thinking similar thoughts.
It was the after-service coffee time that was the hardest. She introduced Jamal to her friends Mojgan and Hari. It was a little awkward to bring a man back behind the counter but it would be rude not to do otherwise. Her friends greeted him but there was not much that anyone felt comfortable talking about. Mojgan and Hari smiled sympathetically and shrugged, motioning towards the people milling around in front of them. Dareen whispered, "Call me. I'm lonely." With a little smile.
Back in Jamal's car, Dareen took off the veil and shook her head. "Oh Jamal, I hate what's happened. I'm an outcast now. I used to love going there. I needed it, it used to be so soothing to be part of, once a week, looking forward to being with my people. And Tahir is so good. Now I can't go."
Jamal tried to put the best face on it. "He didn't say anything about NakedGirl."
Dareen rolled her eyes. "Of course not, Jamal. Not with me there."
Remembering the American flag he had seen displayed so prominently outside the mosque, Jamal said, "Your brother is a U.S. citizen who is stationed in Iraq. It's important for the people in that mosque to be true Americans and they know you're from a good family. The NakedGirl thing is just a shock, that's all. They'll come around."
It was clear even to Jamal, of course, that it was more than just a shock. Modesty, especially female modesty -- this was a basic tenet of Islam, as he knew. After Jamal's failed attempt at comfort, they drove across town back to his apartment in silence.
The next day Dareen got a number to call from Elly. Elly had gone back to the old apartment and patiently sat through the dozens of messages on their answering machine, mostly from reporters which she didn't write down. But the most recent message was from Imam Tahir and it was for her to call him to set up a time to see him during his office time at the mosque.
"Thank you for coming, Dareen, I know this is a difficult time. I wish I could say more about it, I'm an Imam and have been trained to have words for any occasion, but I can't think of how to put it." Imam Tahir's "desk" was actually a folding table with some boxes of papers on one side, filled mostly with cards with names of his congregation. He and Dareen were sitting across from each other on metal folding chairs. His office was very spare. Three shelves of books, a big stand with an open Koran on it, rugs on the walls, and that was it.
"My heart is pure," Dareen said. "I have not strayed." She looked down. "No matter how it looks."
"I'm not questioning that, I know you, and I've met your parents, you are a good girl, honest, smart, with your own mind, which I still think is a good thing," Tahir said. He was clearly under stress, the stress of a mid-level bureaucrat under pressure. "In fact this appointment was not requested by me. I was told to speak to you. I will get right to the point. There have been calls for a fatwa and the Grand Imam and his council have agreed to issue one."
A fatwa. That rarest of things, an official ruling as to what Muslims were to think, similar to an "ex cathedra" pronouncement from the Pope. The regional council hadn't issued a fatwa in decades. She had read about the council's fatwas once in one of the monthly newsletters. The last one was in 1963 after the Birmingham church bombing and it pronounced racial segregation "an abomination before Allah" and ordered Muslims to shun businesses that hired only whites. There was one a few years before that, about whether Muslim women should exercise the right to vote. The issue was highly contested but the council finally decided yes.
"Well," Dareen said, looking down, "there's not much doubt as to what the fatwa is going to say." She looked up, her eyes wet. "I'm going to be banned, right?"
Tahir wanted to be more comforting but resisted. "You should not assume that. Because the Grand Imam and his council want to interview you first. That is a good sign. I've been assigned to tell you that you will be told of a time and place when the Imams will gather. It will be in Charlotte." That was where the Grand Imam's mosque was.
"I will go." Not that they could do anything to her if she refused, aside from simply banning her from mosques. After all this was America. Still, nervous though she was at being questioned by the Imams, Dareen welcomed the chance to explain herself. So she said, "And thank you. Here is where I have been staying." She gave Tahir two numbers, one for Sherry's apartment and one for Jamal's.
As she was about to leave she had a terrible thought. "Imam... What if I am on mission? As... 'NakedGirl'?"
Tahir seemed to spring a migraine headache. He covered his eyes. One of the council Imams had brought this up as a "worst possible scenario".
"Call them before you get there. They will arrange it so that you are behind a screen."