Sometimes, panicking about how to explain mass terrorism to two ten- year-olds is just where you end up in life.
Two summers ago, I was fifteen and living the high life. It’s a good thing that the high life is subjective though, because what I was actually up to that day was creating a plan on the group chat, one which would eventually lead us to a bakery in Queensville Square, following a very familiar routine:
Step One: someone realizes we haven’t hung out in a while.
Step Two: we spend forever debating what to do, only to settle on what we did last time (mosque, library, food).
Step Three: the date and time changes a million times, because, and not to call anyone unreliable or anything, but it’s sort of a miracle if we can all hang out in the end at all.
That day however, destiny gave us open schedules and a stunning set of characters set out on the excursion. The first of them, the twins, are actually two years apart, but calling them twins irritates them, so I do it. Following them is the grand Asiyah Firdaws, accompanied by the first ten-year-old.
Now, you may recall that two ten-year-olds are about to become important. And although they’re a little weird, I am sorry to say there’s nothing particularly special about Jana Firdaws or the second ten-year- old, my sister Zahrah, except that they happened to be around that afternoon, completing our group of six.
Thus, we were off. We met up at the mosque and prayed, bowing our heads on the soft carpet and I, the most cautious one of us, hushing the children when they raised their voices too loud. Then began our stroll to the library on that blissfully warm afternoon, the day stretched out before us, ready to bend to our will and serve us. The kids were in front of us so we didn’t lose track of them, but far away enough that they couldn’t hear our teenage whisperings and secrets.
There, the twins pressured me into committing a true act of teenage rebellion: eating in the library, forcing the friendly cashier at the Macs next door to provide the contraband for our crime. We sat, surrounded by books, telling stories and jokes, finishing off bags of chips, which prompted the twins to declare one of their strongest beliefs: when faced with food, you eat it. And when you do not have any more food left, then you cross the street into Queensville Square to get it. Today, it was going to be Serbia’s Delicatessen & Bakery for the first time.
Fun fact: children are not good at crossing the street. They decide it looks like they won’t immediately die, and cross. That leaves you to decide whether or not you are willing to risk possibly dying as well by running after them, but then you remember that if they do actually die, your mother is going to kill you even more painfully, so, you run after them, Asiyah in tow, and leave the twins to cross safely later.
Another fun fact is that children are not good at patience either, so even when they get to the other side, they wander, which is what the pair of soon-to-be fifth graders began to do.
They landed in front of a dead building, which would later be transformed into a Home Depot, and even later than that, a pharmacy. But all it was at the time was an empty shell, looking worn and old, with a small, fifty-cent newspaper stand in front of it. That is where they stopped and stared.
“ALLAH TOLD ME TO DO THIS.”
“ALLAH TOLD ME TO DO THIS.” A headline, written in bolded capitals, next to a picture of a man with a ski mask covering his face and a knife.
“ALLAH TOLD ME TO DO THIS.” A series of words from a man who stabbed two Canadian police officers to death and narrowly missed a third.
“ALLAH TOLD ME TO DO THIS.” A barricade that now stood between me and two ten year olds.
“ALLAH TOLD ME TO DO THIS.” A jagged crack forming in the middle of every other thing they had ever learned about being Muslim, a crack I did not know how to explain. And, in complete and utter honesty, something I did not want to explain. To explain this headline to them would mean two things.
One: I would shake their innocence and they could never not know anymore.
One point five: I would mess up the explanation. I would say something like, that’s not what Islam is about, but some people, some Muslims, think that’s what Islam tells them to do. And then they would have to choose who to believe and it might not be me.
One point seven-five: I would not ever be able to fix it if they chose not to believe me.
Two: that I would be acknowledging that it happened again. That someone invoked the name of God in an ungodly act and that they called themselves the worshippers of God the way I did too.
I think I’d like to pretend what I did next, my distractions, were to protect their innocence, but I’m lying if I say that.
Nonetheless, I tried to play it casual, ignoring my racing heart and mind for the sake of their innocence. I prayed the twins would cross and force us to keep moving. When traffic wasn’t getting any clearer, I directed my focus at getting their attention instead. Over and over “Jana, Zahrah, get over here and stop looking at that,” spilled out of my mouth while they simultaneously tried to get our attention by shouting, “Yasmen! Asiyah! Come here!”
We continued on like this for what seemed like an hour, me trying to get them to look at literally anything else, and them only growing in their fixation. Eventually, I prepared to surrender and turned to them.
“Look! The newspaper is lying!”
Asiyah and I say nothing.
“Yeah! Allah wouldn’t tell you to do that! This guy is lying. Why would this guy say that?”
I stood, frozen, my mouth beginning sentences and abruptly stopping them before I could form a word, all of my preparedness to combat this evil suddenly useless. I realized they did not need my protection to save them from a moment of distress because there never was such a moment for them. Only Asiyah and I, whose minds contained countless memories of headlines and hate comments, ever even thought to panic. Their calm faces told me I was a source of information to them, not a guardian.
It would take another two years for me to even understand that their curiosity was not because they were young and innocent or even because they were ignorant of the days I’d spent creating responses to every inquiry or comment that could be thrown my way the next day at school after a terrorist attack. Their curiosity was simply because during that instant, they understood Islam better than I did. The question was about people and individual actions, not faith.
There are days when that question replays in my mind and I say something back to them. Asiyah and I answer it before someone else can. We sit on the curb and we have an entire lifetime before the twins get to our side. I think up a thousand different ways to tell them that some people want to hurt others, because they are sad, or disillusioned, or both, trying to pick the simplest and fullest truth. There isn’t one. Other times, even in these memories, I am still silent, deciding that I am not the person to tell them. Those are the days I admit to myself that I still do not know, only that I am tired of having to guess.
Nonetheless, two summers ago, I carry the children away from that newspaper stand and towards the twins who had no knowledge of the panic that had ensued. We leave all the words behind— the headline, their questions and my unspoken responses— and everyone is finally safe on the side of the road that they are supposed to be on. The world transforms back to the way it was, the way it should be, just a bunch of teenagers hoping for a brownie, dragging their sisters along.
We entered the bakery. My sister and I split a single dessert. In case we do not like it, I told her.
We ended up loving it.
Yasmen Abuzaid is a first year university student busy falling in love with history and writing. Her passions include reading, Model United Nations and hanging out on swings. You can find her work on @astudyinselfadronitis on Instagram