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No Fireworks, Only Candles: Our Work as Americans and Muslims

May 3, 2011

It’s 4:30 a.m. and I can’t sleep. Outside our bedroom window, trucks begin to move in to prepare for the neighborhood festival. I get up and work for hours in the rare silence before the baby awakens.

The festival begins. It’s one of those perfect San Francisco days, warm enough to enjoy the perpetual breeze. The band plays just beyond the walls of our roof deck, and soap bubbles float up close enough to pop from the crowded street below.

All afternoon, friends join us. Music and sunlight stream in to the kitchen through the open glass doors. We eat dark strawberries picked the day before, drink homemade lemonade, and dance on the deck to everything from the Beatles to Hank Williams. Our friends are second-generation American Muslims of South Asian, Arab, and African heritage, white converts, and beautiful toddlers of interracial marriages. Watching them interact, I am content, and hopeful for our future here.

My husband and I push the stroller through the neighborhood after our friends leave. The festival is officially over but children are still dancing on a wooden floor as the crew dismantles the stage behind them, as women clear stalls of crafts and clothes.

Later that night, we are stunned and relieved at Osama bin Laden’s death, watching Twitter swell and listening to President Obama’s address through the laptop.

The relief dissipates. I have no desire to set off fireworks, jump into a car and yell out the window while waving fists and flags. If I were in New York City, I would light a candle at the memorial and keep vigil. In San Francisco, I pray in a room lit only by a streetlamp, filled with sadness for those who have died in America, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and apprehension at the terrorism-related deaths to come. Our work as Americans and Muslims is far from done.

The next morning, all I want to do is read news articles and listen to NPR, but the baby is grouchy, refusing food and wanting to be held. The more he grabs at my legs, the more irritated I become. Aggrieved, I take him to the other room to play. Within a few minutes, we go from grumpy to giggling. Right now, being aware of the world and its future is meaningful only if I can also be fully engaged with this tiny, wriggling, joyful boy.

There will be many articles searching the details for meaning in the coming days, and after awhile they will all begin to sound the same. What is true is this: He is dead, and in the court of the best of judges. We who live have choices to make.

Perhaps I will only remember the neighborhood festival for the news at the end of the day. More likely, I will remember it for the women setting things right after celebrating crowds dispersed, and the children dancing as men worked carefully on.


Beth Roberts's picture

Keeping Vigil


Thank you so much for sharing your reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden. I felt similarly saddened and relieved, and I share your feeling that as Americans, our work is far from done in terms of understanding each other and living at peace with one another, whether we are Muslims, Christians, agnostics, or anything else. As a mother, I share your desire to understand the world and to engage fully and joyfully with my son, and I share the struggle that sometimes entails.

Your thoughts are poignant and you are a wonderful writer. I am proud to be keeping vigil alongside you.


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