a short story
During his New Year’s ritual of cleaning his apartment, Zaid opened the bottom drawer of his wood desk to find the prayer beads. There were 99 of them, made of plastic, dark blue and strung together in a loop by a thin string. He didn’t know if they had been lying there waiting for him, or if they had just materialized. He couldn’t tell. He thought they had been lost long ago.
He picked them up and played with them, passing them through his fingers, pushing them one by one with his thumb and listening as they made the same clicking noises they always made. From the desk chair, Zaid could see the trash bin in the corner of his room. He thought about when he first touched the beads. His grandfather had given them to him when Zaid was eight. Zaid didn’t know what they were when we saw them. A necklace? A bracelet? His grandfather told him the string of beads was called a tasbih, and that it would help him count the names of God as he repeated them during his prayers. His grandfather told him that there were 99 names, a bead for each one, but Zaid didn’t have to know them all, he said. He could pick a few to remember and repeat.
His grandfather was no longer with him, and Zaid never learned all the names. As he wrapped them around his fingers, he wondered when else the beads had been in his hands. Had that moment with his grandfather been the first and the last time until now? Or had he clutched the beads after hearing the news of his grandfather’s death a year after receiving the gift? When younger Zaid was lying on his mattress, his face buried in his pillow, sticky from tears and snot, sobbing and coughing until his chest and throat hurt, he didn’t know that what he was doing was called mourning. But did he have the beads with him? At that age of eight, did he know the name As-Salam, The Source of Peace?
Zaid looked closely at the tasbih. It showed signs of use. A few beads were scratched, a few discolored. Zaid kept thinking. Could the beads have been thrown in the garbage years ago without him knowing or caring? He tried to figure out what use he might have for them now. He closed his eyes and saw 10-year-old Zaid, hiding in the basement of his childhood home, hugging himself to keep his body from shaking, hearing the roars and crashes coming from his parents upstairs. He knew all of that had happened. But completing the picture was difficult. Had the beads been in his pocket? In his hand? Lying somewhere in his bedroom? At what point was that incident real, and when did it become make-believe? Zaid knew that terror had spread throughout the inside of his body like an electric hum invading a quiet room and clinging to the air. But he couldn’t decide whether or not he had repeated the name Al-Wali, The Protector. It probably hadn’t made a difference. Zaid remembered the tremors of fear in his gut that had lasted for months as his parents had gone through the steps of separation.
Zaid was certain he had planned on tossing them by the time high school started. Teenage Zaid had gained more knowledge and awareness, so he thought it was silly to believe that words had the power to change him, much less the world around him, even in a small way. He also knew that using the correct names is tricky, in life and even more so with regards to God. Someone could have grown up thinking that Al-Batin meant one thing, while someone else could have grown up believing that Name meant something else. Maybe, if Zaid had known Arabic as a teenager, he would have felt more sure about the Names. But he had too much to worry about: maintaining grades, doing activities that looked good on paper, keeping up with friends, futilely chasing romance, trying to sleep at least sometimes.
Zaid was sure that he had forgotten about the beads by his junior year in college. He remembered that he had spent the better part of a night sitting on the floor, hugging a trash can, puking his insides out, feeling as if his brain were on the verge of blowing up inside his skull. By that time, Zaid had thrown away all the declarations from his family members and elders that the consumption of alcohol was immoral. To Zaid, it made no sense that a dietary restriction should have anything to do with morality. Looking at the beads in his hands, Zaid saw no traces of vomit, so he was sure he hadn’t been holding them while gripping the rim of the trash can. He hadn’t been begging for his sickness to end, nor had he been pleading for forgiveness. Still, sitting at his desk now, he wondered if he had thought, at least for a moment, if the sickness had been a punishment. He tried to determine if his mind had been caught between the Names Al-’Alim, The Omniscient, or Ar-Rahim, The All-Merciful.
The memory of the time when Zaid had last held the beads hit him without warning, like a splash of cold water to the face. He was ashamed of having forgotten, but the memory was so heavy on his heart that he had to bury it in a shallow part of his mind. It had been uncovered now, and he pulled it out so he could hold it before his eyes. A year ago, while Zaid was trying to make a living after college, his friend Jacob had been in an accident. Zaid learned the news from a mutual friend and sat at Jacob’s bedside every night for days waiting for Jacob to wake up. Zaid now remembered how he had wrapped the beads around his hand. He couldn’t decide on a Name, so he had repeated as many as he could. He had hoped and prayed, and when Jacob finally did wake up, Zaid held him with the beaded hand, and Jacob touched the beads.
Had praying worked? Did God hear what Zaid thought and said? Zaid wasn’t completely sure, but he knew he couldn’t part with the beads. He wrapped the beads around his hand once more and liked how they reflected the light from the fluorescent bulbs above.