The man pushed his way to the front of the bus through the crowd of standing women. Zahra could feel him behind her, his breath so close it blew hot against her ear.
“Whore!” The voice was low, menacing.
She forced herself not to move, let him see her react.
“You shame your family; you shame Allah.”
Zahra’s mother had warned her that the sleeves of her shalwar kameez, cut just below her elbow, would not be looked upon kindly by the traditional Muslims who made up the majority of their Pakistani neighborhood. But the cut showed off the bracelets Ahmir had bought for her birthday, her first gift from a boy, so she had insisted. “She’s 17,” her father had said in the face of her mother’s concerns. “The Lord will guide her decisions.”
Zarah heard the spitting sound before she felt it land. For once, she was thankful for the head covering she wore. It will wash.
When the bus stopped, she jumped forward before the man had a chance to push her. She knew she could lose him easily in the Raja Bazaar, Rawalpindi’s ancient maze of shopping stalls. She weaved past displays of hand-woven rugs, knives and musical instruments, finally slipping through the door of a small restaurant.
She could hear “Zahra!” and feet dashing toward her long before her eyes adjusted to the room’s rich, muted yellow interior. She barely caught a glimpse of bright pink fabric before she was engulfed in it. “Nasha, I can’t breathe!” she laughed.
“Well, I was afraid you’d never make it here,” her friend countered, “you know how dangerous it is to travel alone, even across town. I wish you’d be more careful.”
Guess I’d better not tell her about the man on the bus. “’Fear has torment,*’” she quoted with a smile.
The service was beginning just as the girls arrived at church that evening. Zahra waved at her parents before taking a seat near the back with Nasha’s family. The air conditioning was a shock after the summer heat and she shivered, then felt her face grow hot again when she saw Ahmir watching her.
Pastor Biri’s message was on forgiving those who are unkind to you, just as Jesus forgave those who put him to death. “Remember,” he told the congregation, “just as the people didn’t realize what they were doing when they crucified the Lord, they don’t know what they are doing when they hurt you. They are damaging a child of the Most High and heaping coals of fire on their souls. Jesus loves them; may they see that love revealed in us.” Zahra thought of the man on the bus. Help me forgive him, Lord.
As she would remember it later, the smoke would be strong and everywhere, but that night, it seemed almost pleasant, a gentle reminder of winter days when she was a child. The gasoline smell was what struck her first: curious, she looked around. And saw the fear in the everyone’s eyes.
Nasha’s father was the first to move. He ran to the sanctuary doors and pushed against the bar...it was blocked from the outside. He hesitated, and in the instant before he turned back toward the congregation, Zahra understood. This was the third time this month that a Christian church had been set on fire with the worshippers locked inside.
No one moved or spoke. Finally, Pastor Biri continued with his sermon, “As Jesus responded, so should we. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do*.’”
It was eight months before Zahra was able to leave the burn unit. Two years before she could walk again. She was one of the lucky ones, the doctors told her. Most had died, including Nasha, her family and Zahra’s parents.
As she stood in the aisle of the crowded bus, she could hear a commotion behind her. She waited. “I told you, whore,” said the now-familiar voice.
This time, Zahra turned to face him. Slowly, she looked up to meet the anger in his eyes. “Jesus forgives you,” she said. “He loves you and I’ve prayed every day that you’ll come to know him.”
After a long moment, the man was the first to look away. He pushed past Zahra and stepped off the bus. She watched him until he was lost in the crowd.
*I John 4:18: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love." (KJV)
*Luke 23:24 (KJV)
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