"The Meat Market",
by Julia Simpson-Akin
She thought of him as the "chicken man" - that's what she called him in her mind - since it appeared to her as the simplest way to identify the man from whom she bought two chickens a week. He was the butcher at Nick's Armenian and Mid-East Groceries; not just any butcher, in fact, but a Muslim butcher who slaughtered according to Islamic rules. He had been contracted by Nick to fill a counter in his shop and a need of the sizeable Muslim community in that sunny coastal city in the American southwest.
On Fridays at precisely three-twenty, after the weekly sisters' meeting, Hajr would invariably sail through the market door along with a current of fresh, ocean-cooled air and a web of sunrays tangled impishly in the folds of her long skirt. She would walk straight down one of the aisles to the meat counter. It was a bit higher than most meat counters although not unusually so; at least there was no difficulty for the butcher and his assistant to see when they had a customer over the glass top. As soon as the butcher was ready to attend to Hajr, he would say, "Assalam alaikum, Sister."
She would answer, "Wa alaikum salam wa rahmatullah," without adding "brother," although she might have. Then she would give him the order of two chickens, and on rare occasions, for a chicken and a cut of meat.
For a woman who had been Muslim for somewhat less than a quarter of her existence, and who had abandoned her former career as a dancer to pursue one as a student and one day teacher of human communications, the greeting of Islam held manifold meanings. It never failed to send a wave of contentment and relief through her soul. It meant "Peace be upon you." As Peace was another name for God and signified what really was to be shared between God's creatures (not the bickering and strife humans were wont to fall into), it contained in its expression a reminder of what people should hope for each other. Using this little-known name of God thus also meant, for Hajr, the recognition that the Quranic prayer "My worship and my sacrifice, my living and my dying, are for Thee, Lord of the Worlds" was something people should keep alive in their minds.
Oh, of course, her sacrifice and struggle were nothing compared to that of people in Bosnia, Kosovo, Africa and other parts of the world! Yet still, she knew that her own sacrifice in this wearing of long clothes and scarves, which occasioned rude stares and hostile comments, was not to be lost on the Lord of the Worlds. Nor indeed was her endeavor to make ends meet without being able to make money anymore in the art in which she was so well trained.
In these thoughts she did well by God, though she might have done even better if she had realized that He might easily accept her abandoning such encumbrances in order to live more comfortably. People were always making God out to be more demanding to mankind at large than He had ever shown Himself to be. Yet Hajr was a seeker, and like any seeker had to sift through her own strivings and experiences in order to one day discover that His Understanding does indeed encompass all things.
What she knew for certain was that sacrifice hung heavy in the embarrassment of needing financial help, and of having to ask for it; and most of all in loving, living with and trying to persuade an impulsive, vivacious teenage daughter that the ills of the Muslim nation were not the ills of God's message.
The Islamic butcher's counter had not been established more than a few months at Nick's Groceries before the butcher, whose name Hajr never knew and in ignorance thereof referred to mentally as the "chicken man," began to recognize the American sister who was always there on Fridays. There was nothing between them save those two weekly chickens and the prayer they offered one another, as did millions of Muslims: "Assalam alaikum." Nothing save a few idle comments.
"Beautiful weather, isn't it?" he might ask.
"Alhamdullilah, it is lovely today," she'd respond.
"Can't get enough chickens nowadays!"
In which case she might just smile, or say "Oh, that's too bad."
There was never more than that. There was nothing personal, no longer conversations. Hajr understood the modern-day Arabian interpretation of Islam too well to do otherwise. She was a respectable, proper woman. She led a life similar to a nun's. It must have, or assumedly should have, thrilled the hearts of devout Muslims from the Middle East to see a sincere convert like her when so many of the folks back home were eagerly attempting to shed their scruples.
Apparently, however, the chicken man found room for some minor correction in Hajr. It was on the subject of her appearance and conduct. As for the former, she wore long skirts and long-sleeved shirts and no make-up, save for a bit of kohl about the eyes. She had read that certain Muslim scholars permitted women to wear kohl, and a ring on one hand. She wore only the kohl, not the ring, because she didn't want to be thought married. Hajr had also read that natural kohl benefited the eyes, and so she felt she might be doing herself some good.
One day, after the chicken man had twisted the paper-covered wires about the ends of the plastic bags containing the two chickens, he stepped around the corner of the glass counter as usual and stood before Hajr. This part of her purchase no longer discomfited Hajr. Now she took it in stride as a meaningless peculiarity of the chicken man.
Normally, one would expect the butcher to slap a sticker on the package, mark the price with a felt pen, and shove it across the counter. Butchers from Montreal to New Mexico did precisely that. However, the chicken man felt called upon, at every purchase, to present the poultry with a little bow, as if he was in the circus.
This day was different. He held onto the chickens.
"I'd like to speak to you, Sister," he said in a serious voice.
Hajr was taken aback.
"Sister," he began somberly, allowing the weight of his voice to creep down her spine, "everyday Muslim sisters come to this meat counter and order something from me."
He allowed this proof of experience to rest in the air between them a moment. Then, with seeming reluctance, he continued, "They tell me exactly what they want and then they go stand in the corner without speaking. You, on the other hand, stand right in the middle of the counter and make conversation."
The chicken man paused again to see what effect this comparison would make upon the listening woman. Hajr looked both perturbed and puzzled.
"That is not all," he said. His brow darkened. "I notice that you wear kohl on your eyes. Don't do that, Sister! Don't wear kohl on your eyes when you go out in public."
Having once been a dancer, Hajr was not a terribly shy woman. Still, because of the sincerity of her ideals, this rebuke had the effect of making her wish she could be a puff of ocean mist, and slip that way under the door. She could live without chickens, she thought.
"Thank you," she told the floor.
The chicken man sadly held out the bag and bowed, more stiffly than was his wont. Hajr paid at the cash register, and left without doing her customary five to ten minutes of browsing through the lentil and fava beans, the Basmati rice, cardamom seeds and Turkish coffee canisters.
Back in the car, Hajr scrutinized her face in the rear-view mirror. It was so upsetting. She had put on so little kohl. The rest of her well-scrubbed face shined back at her in outrage and embarrassment.
Though avid and humble in her conversion, Hajr did not conclude the chicken man to be the last word on religious bylaws. Neither did she dismiss the possibility that he was attracted to her eyes, and preferred to lay the blame at her door. There was also the chance that he was merely trying to forbid evil and exhort good - like so many from 'back home,' - trying to straighten out the converts, as it were.
Hajr really thought she had attired herself with discretion. Her scarf was pulled down to cover most of her forehead, and the clothes she wore bore silent testimony to hours upon hours hunched over her sewing machine stitching up long, loose jackets and long, flowing skirts. You couldn't really find these things in stores. Yet guilt seeped into the marrow of her bones because, after all, she was the convert and the chicken man was indigenous, the 'real' Muslim. She could not help but feel that his was somehow the straighter path.
The next couple of months saw no interruption in Hajr's attendance of classes on human communications, nor in her weekly visits to Nick's Armenian and Mid-East Groceries. Now without kohl on her eyes, Hajr sailed in through the doorway on Fridays at three-twenty, and picked up her meat and spices. She no longer spoke to the chicken man and wondered sometimes at his adamant bowing - their only interchange was now the passing of "Assalam alaikum." This mutual wish for peace, Hajr believed, infinitely transcended the pettiness of human criticism or consumer transactions. It was for this that she came to Nick's - after all, any old chickens could be got in any supermarket - in any old clothes.
Through the mercy of Allah, it was some time after that last embarrassing encounter that Hajr found her living conditions improved. She came into a small inheritance from her grandfather, even though he had been wont, in life, to label her conversion as "going round the bend." Nonetheless, he had not barred her from his will. It was amazing how swiftly the news got around, and how it changed as it was relayed.
One Friday afternoon Hajr stood in front of the refrigerated glass counter and asked for a chicken and a pound of meat. The chicken man was in an exceedingly good mood.
"So, Sister!" he exclaimed, while weighing the meat for her. "I understand that you have bought an apartment complex." He slapped another handful of meat onto the scales to push it just past a pound.
"Oh wait," said Hajr, "I don't own an..."
"You see, maybe you could give me some advice," continued the chicken man, dazzling her with an ingratiating smile. He beamed amiably upon the white oiled paper in which he was folding up the raw meat, and exuded a sort of tenderness that made Hajr think of a baby whose bottom was being diapered by his mother. The chicken man's delighted eye flashed up at her as he taped the paper together.
"I'm looking for a place to invest a little money. You must know what's on the market, since you're in that line of business..."
"What?" she broke in. "I only bought a small condo, just like tons of other people, that's all. And I'm paying on time, to establish credit. Can't afford to pay it all at once." The last comment was cagily installed, to deflect jealousy. It helped, but not much.
"Oh really?" said the chicken man, momentarily taken aback. He hashed this over mentally for a few seconds as he marked the price with a black felt pen. Some breakthrough evidently illuminated his mind as he laid down the pen, for he nodded knowingly. He had her pegged.
But of course, the sister was employing admirable caution. One must not incite envy and thus tempt the evil eye. It was not wise to admit to so much good luck. Even if she did not own an entire building, a single condo was not to be sniffed at. Perhaps the matter was rather better than she outlined; didn't the truth usually lie somewhere between two poles?
Hajr watched the chicken man step around the counter with her two orders and proffer them to her. As soon as her fingertips made contact with the paper, he was bowing.
"Assalam alaikum, Sister," he murmured reverently. "If you hear of any particularly good buys - condominiums or apartments - please let me know."
"Uh, yeah. Sure," responded Hajr, with a confused, silent 'oh, dear,' to herself.
"Wa alaikum salam," she added gravely, turning on her way to the cash register. The chicken man's sudden chattiness had thrown her off balance. Wasn't he the one who had objected to idle comments of a fraternizing nature? Apparently 'business' was something else altogether: it didn't count!
Hajr's consternation mounted on the next trip to the halal meat market, seven days later. She would have preferred not to have had anything to do with this brother who blew hot and cold, criticizing her tendency to make the casual remark or wear kohl, and then pulling her along on his own wave of enthusiastic observations that absolutely demanded reply. If he caught her eye, which she tried her best to avoid, he had a disconcerting habit of reeling her in, just like a fish on a hook. So it had been even on the first day that he had imparted advice to her. It broke up one's composure with the feeling that he was doing it on purpose. Notwithstanding, as a convert, she always fell into the rut of quick self-doubt. As the 'new' Muslim, one ostensibly knew less of proper conduct vis-a-vis God than the life-long 'native' Muslim.
Hajr had no other choice but to visit that shop weekly. It was the only halal meat market in town. Although the local mosque sold halal meat, women were not encouraged to cross the threshold - and she didn't have a husband to rely upon to make the purchase for her.
Perhaps that was the answer: to get married. The opportunity of inferring that it was so never escaped most of her friends and acquaintances, as if it were truly indecent that a Muslim woman should desire to be left alone, at least for a while. Yet she had her reasons. She was by no means unhappy in her lifestyle, and assured friends who inquired that it was a very full one.
On the next Friday, the butcher demonstrated that he was of those who would have liked to see it a lot fuller. It may have been that he now suspected her of being ever so much more eligible than she had appeared in her simple purchases and worn-out little car. His eyes still glowing with the embers of their last 'business' conversation, the chicken man instantly cast out his line:
"Assalam alaikum, Sister. Are you open to a marriage proposal?"
"Wa alaikum salam wa rahmatullah," returned Hajr swiftly trying not to look confounded by the very sharp hook now dangling before her. It was best to hedge - what did he have in mind, after all? So many of her acquaintances were forever urging marriage upon her as a panacea for whatever ailed her.
Hajr did vaguely desire marriage, at some future date. Yet the insinuation was heavy in the air, especially from her Arabian friends, that she was of an 'age' when she should take whatever she could - blind, eager acceptance as it were - and this attitude rankled her inwardly more than she could bring herself to admit. Perhaps she stayed unmarried because by Arab custom (but not theory), a woman was not suffered to go unmarried. It was not a question of seeking happiness or a partner; it was more a question of meat going bad.
Still, she had to appear polite.
"Well, yes, I am willing to hear a proposal. I make no promises, you understand."
"Of course, of course," agreed the chicken man. "Let me tell you that this is a very good brother who wants to get married..."
Hajr sighed in relief that it was not the chicken man himself.
"He just came over," said the butcher, naming a war-torn country in the Middle East. "He wants to live here in America. Poor man, he has lost everything in the war."
Hajr felt a stab of pity, and asked, "How old is he?"
"Oh, he's just a little older than you," replied the chicken man reassuringly.
"What about his family?"
"He had to leave them. He has a brother remaining there. Samir - that's this good man's name - wants to start life fresh. He wants to get married. Will you meet him?" The chicken man was reeling her in again, and she wrenched her eyes off the hook and took a good look at a side of beef under the glass counter. From that vantage point she pursued:
"His wife and kids?"
The chicken man made a clucking sound with his tongue. It sounded like brooding compassion.
"He's all alone now."
Hajr threw a sidelong glance at the butcher, wondering exactly what 'all alone now' meant: an abandoned wife in the Middle East? She couldn't help thinking how much easier it might be to start life anew with a green card.
"Will you meet him?" asked the chicken man again, insisting.
"We might set up an appointment..." began Hajr hesitantly, suddenly noting with surprise that this semi-acquiescence had already triggered the butcher into motion. He had scurried off, and she could feel a wave of cold sweep over her as if he had left the walk-in refrigerator open too long. For all she knew, he was pulling his candidate out of that very place.
The chicken man came striding purposefully back, and behind his shoulders bobbed a hoary head. Likewise, a much thicker waistline could be perceived plumped out from behind either side of the chicken man's mid-drift. The former was enclosed in a checkered shirt.
Both men came around the counter. The chicken man stood solemnly to attention. His companion, who was at least 65 years old if he was a day, siddled up to Hajr, hands shoved deep inside his pockets. With a flippant, somewhat nervous smile, the old man in the checkered shirt crowed, "Hiya Sister, how're ya doin'?"
He hadn't even said 'Assalam alaikum.' Surely one might have the presence of mind to make the prayer of peace upon another with whom one hoped to share one's life.
Hajr wasn't sure whether this wasn't part of the circus act, and if she shouldn't suddenly strip off her long skirt, shirt and scarf in outrage at the slight. That would teach them! If she were to tie her scarf around her hips, she might show them that an American woman could really belly dance.
Yet with extraordinary grace, the kind that comes from knowing the depth of spiritual despair and ecstasy the prima donna must experience in order to dance Swan Lake, Hajr gathered herself together and said in as polite and friendly a manner as she dared:
"I am very fine, thank you. May I have my order now? Thank you. I pray that Allah guides you and gives you patience to bear your afflictions. Assalam alaikum."
Saying so, she pirouetted, walking past the bags of garbanzo beans and lentils, the boxes of couscous, the large glass coffee bean canisters and the piles of Syrian bread in plastic bags. She found herself once more before the cash register.
"That'll be $8.94," said Nick's wife. "Thank you."
She slid Hajr's money under the metal spring bar holding the dollar bills, and counted out the change in pennies.
"Here you are, dear."
"Thank you," replied Hajr.
Glints of curiosity flicked from the woman's eyes as she handed Hajr her coins. Well, and who could have missed that little spectacle?
The determined square that had been Hajr's shoulders gave way, like a mound of drifting sand, to a drooping curve as Hajr reflected on all the times yet to come when she would have to present herself at the meat market, for lack of a husband.
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