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Short Story


Shems in Dunya Land - A Short Story

By:  Sundus Alsharif

I still remember the day it happened. I was supposed to go to a party that would’ve made me the most popular girl in school, but where I ended up instead changed my life forever. I was 15 years old, getting dressed for a party, when all of a sudden, my mom knocked on my bedroom door.

“Shems open up, let me see what you’re wearing,” my mom said. My heart flipped as I jumped up and threw on an abaya—a floor length dress, and a hijab, a piece of cloth that covered my hair.

“Mama, look, do you like it?” I said pointing at the green and brown sequins on the abaya.

“Yes it’s beautiful, and I approve.” In that moment, I felt like someone poured cold water over my burning nerves.  Phew, I thought. Thank goodness she approves. Now I have a way to get out of here without getting lectured again about dressing as a modest Muslim. “Shems, we are leaving, have a great time at Julie’s party,” said my mom.

My dad turned over and asked, “It’s a girl’s only party, right Shems?” My hands started to shake as I replied,

“Of course, Baba.”

“Good, enjoy your time,” my dad said.

As soon as my parents left, I slipped out of the abaya and into skinny jeans with a long sleeved shirt plastered on my upper body. After throwing off my glasses, I put on purple eye shadow to match the shirt I was wearing.

I decided I’d keep the hijab on—it was the least I could do after taking off the abaya. As I stared into my reflection, I couldn’t help but think how impressed I was. The shadow really brought out my hazel eyes, and the jeans showed off my long legs perfectly.

My heart beat faster thinking about everyone’s reaction to my appearance. I locked the front door and walked towards Julie’s house three blocks away. By looking at the green, yellow, and red leaves on each block, I knew fall was approaching in the beautiful state of California.

 Julie’s house was at the end of the third block, and I was only two houses away when it happened. The ground shook violently. Oh my God, this is an earthquake, I thought as cracks pierced through the earth. My entire body vibrated and the crack opened larger, sucking me in. Aaahhhhh I screamed when I fell into a river of tar and hit my head on what looked like an oversized bowling ball.

 WHERE AM I? I said at the top of my lungs. No one answered. My glasses re-appeared over my eyes, and I looked around. There were towering trees made out of coal. The sky had mansions layered in burning paper. I smelled the scent of ashes in the air.

“You are in dunya-land,” said a tiny voice. I twirled around, with tar flinging off of my hijab and jeans. I removed my glasses, and used the clean part of my hijab to wipe the tar off.

“I can’t see you,” I said, trying to figure out where the voice came from.

“I’m right here, behind you,” the voice said again. I turned around, and saw a black squirrel with green eyes.

The squirrel extended a paw, and said: “As Salamu Alaikum, peace is unto you. My name is Qamar, and you are in dunya-land.”

“Whoa. Wait a second. I am in a place called dunya-land, what does that mean? And squirrels talk in this world?”

“In dunya-land, the illusions that exist in normal life diminish. You see everything for what it truly is: fading and rotting. In this world, squirrels can talk to humans to help them,” said Qamar.

“Oh, that would explain the atrocious smell, and the pool of tar I fell into. But wait, how can you help me? The only thing I want right now is to get back to California so I can take a shower and go to Julie’s party.” I folded my arms across my chest.  I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to a squirrel, I thought.

“You can’t leave dunya-land until you fight the beast, and I can help train you. I’ve trained many humans before you to fight this battle. What’s your name?” Qamar smirked and fluffed her tail.

“There’s a beast?” blood started to boil to my head, and I trembled. “Well, I’ll fight the beast if it means I can go back to California. And my name is Shems,” I told Qamar. Anything was worth it if it meant I could go to that party.

“Okay then. Here is a map of dunya-land. We have to pass the forest of mirrors, the cave of birds, and the Red Sea to reach the beast,” said Qamar pointing to an opened scroll. Come on Shems, follow me. Qamar grabbed the scroll with her paws, and ran ahead.

 If it wasn’t for Qamar’s fluffy tail, I would’ve lost her direction, since she blended in so perfectly with the blackened trees.

“We’re passing the death roses, which means were almost at the forest of mirrors. Pick up a rose, it’s the only way we can pass through the forest of mirrors,” said Qamar as she nibbled at a rotting acorn. The death roses lined up on the ground in dozens, sparkling lipstick red, with dew on each petal. What appeared like a tiny white pearl centered each rose. They smelled like a fresh breeze of air in comparison to the ash scent of this land. I picked up a rose, and held it close to my face. The soft petals reminded me of my teddy bear, Heart, at home. I remember a time when I cried with Heart in my arms. I was only twelve years old.

“Why don’t you go back to your country, Towel -head? And break your glasses too, while you’re at it, four-eyes,” Julie said during lunch at school. She always looked straight in my eyes the moment she started laughing. I never forgot the color of Julie’s eyes, they were grey.  Tears rolled down my cheeks, and my heart beat faster.  I couldn’t answer her, because a small part of me believed her. A part of me believed I was worthless. I went home and cried with Heart.

As I moved the death rose from my cheek, it turned into ashes. I coughed up black phlegm, and my body shook, while folds of wrinkles surfaced on my hands. “Qamar, what is happening to me?” I said.

“Shems, your physical state is deteriorating. It’s one of the side-effects of death roses. Let’s walk into the forest of mirrors now,” Qamar said as she planted herself on my wilted foot, and wrapped her paws around my right ankle.  Qamar’s green eyes started to glow as I inched towards the forest. The only visible light emanated from a crescent moon. A cold wind rushed through my tar-covered clothes, and what sounded like birds chirping resounded in the background. I stepped into the forest, and every tree made of coal lit on fire. The darkness that once surrounded me diminished as I faced mirrors in front of every tree on fire.

“Walk in front of each one Shems,” said Qamar, still attached to my right ankle. Each mirror I walked in front of had something to say about my appearance. The reflective material morphed into lips that said:

“You’re too tall, your arms are sagging. Look at those lines on your forehead.” I am too tall; there are lines all over my forehead. What would the people at Julie’s party think if they saw me right now? I thought.  I grabbed my right hand with my left, and looked at another mirror.

“Go back to your country. Hazel eyes aren’t so hazel anymore, are they?” My hazel eyes appeared to fade. I guess that happens with age. Oh no, is this what’s going to happen when I get older? I’m going to lose my beauty. I started to pant, and begged the next mirror:

“Please, please tell me there is something worth it in me, I beg you. You’re the last mirror left,” I said.

“Towel-head. Wrinkles, everywhere. With the way you look, I can guarantee that you will be alone forever. Glasses aren’t in style. Four-eyes. ”

That mirror was my last hope, and even it failed me. Qamar jumped off of my ankle, scuttling in front of me. I fell with my forehead pressed to the ground. My entire body cried, with tears flowing from my eyes, mind, and heart. “Oh Allah— God— ease my heart. Take this pain away from me.” I shivered as Qamar curled up. The fire simmered down, and a cool breeze blew across my back. The last thing I felt before falling asleep was Qamar’s warm, fuzzy body next to my cheek.


My eyes fluttered open to brown birds pecking at my back. Qamar un-curled and perked up her cheeks.

“Shems, get up, and follow the birds,” said Qamar.

It was still pitch black outside, and I only heard what sounded like crickets. I looked at the sky, and saw stars speckled amongst what used to be empty darkness. At least now I could see better, I thought. The brown birds continued to peck at my back until I got up and followed them.

“Where are they taking me,” I asked Qamar.

“You’ll see.” Qamar smiled and quivered as a waft of cold air ran across her fur.

As I was walking, I felt something banging against my thigh. I reached into my pocket, and retrieved a glowing stick

“Qamar, how did this get in my pocket?” I asked as the glowing stick illuminated the path. My heart flipped, and I got butterflies in my stomach.“Allah—God, of course. Who else do you think gave it to you? You’re alone in the middle of a forest with a squirrel and birds.” Qamar chuckled and jumped onto my leg, crawling up to my shoulder. The brown birds chirped, starting to peck me again once I reached a pond. I expected to see tar here, but when I held up the glowing stick, I saw clear sparkling water. I inched closer to the pond, and the birds filled their beaks with water, started to pour it in my hands.

“Make wudu, purification for prayer,” Qamar said.

I removed my hijab, and  said “Bismillah, In the name of God,” pouring water over my hands, into my mouth, nose, over my face, arms, hair, ears, and feet.

The birds open their beaks and grab my hijab, blanketing it over my hair. I move the glow stick to the corner of the pond and notice that Qamar pressed her head to the ground, kneeling. Her tail quivered the moment I stepped next to her.

“Shems, make salah— establish prayer, we can’t move on into the cave of birds until you do,” said Qamar.  

I moved towards the corner of the pond, where there was a small section of land. I raised both of my hands, and said “Allahu Akbar—God is the Greatest”, and established my prayer from one flowing bow to another kneeling prostration. I repeated this twice. 

 As soon as I finished my prayer, the sun started to rise, and Qamar tapped my foot with her paw.

“Shams, hurry, we have to run away now. The deer chase us if we don’t find security the cave of birds,” said Qamar crawling up my leg and onto my shoulder.  Qamar’s heart beat sped up, and she laced her paws tightly around my neck.

“Run as fast as you can, straight through the forest, and follow the brown birds. They will lead you to the Cave.”

Dunya-land started to light up as I witnessed the first sunrise I had ever seen in this dark world. Sweat dripped off of my face while I ran through the straight path, Qamar holding on for dear life on my neck as I looked for the cave. The birds led me with their chirps, but I still had to pay attention to where I was going.

 Along the way, I noticed that the trees made out of coal started to change into normal looking trees—like the ones back home with brown bark and green leaves. Even though the air still smelled like ashes, it felt better to see something familiar, even if it was just the color of trees.

I actually calmed down for a moment, until Qamar grabbed my shoulder.

“I hear the deer. Run faster, or we will get attacked,” Qamar said, panting. I turned around and saw deer colored as white as snow with red beady eyes galloping towards me.

I ran faster than I ever had in my entire 15 years of living. The trees became a blur of green and brown, and Qamar’s tail shed black pieces of fur all over my face as she held onto my neck. After at least 20 minutes of running, I finally saw a clearance at the end of the path. The safe haven has to be here, I thought as I saw the brown birds fly to the right — and into the cave. This is definitely the cave of birds. I sprinted into the cave, pulling Qamar off of my shoulder, holding her in my hands. I saw birds swarming around the ceiling. Qamar squirmed away, jumping onto the floor.

“Don’t grab me like that,” Qamar said, glaring at me with her green eyes.

“Sorry, I just wanted to protect you from the birds that might peck at you to death in this cave. “My bad for trying to save your life in this rat-race of getting….”

Before I could finish my sentence, I heard the same galloping from the deer earlier when I was running. Qamar curled into a ball and started to shiver, and all I could do was fall to the ground. My head pressed the cold floor, and my heart started to sink. I heard a banging noise, and knew that the deer were right around the corner—so I decided to quickly glance up.

Oh my goodness, I thought.

“Qamar, That noise hasn’t been coming from the deer. It’s from over there! Quickly, get up and look,” I said. Qamar un-curled and popped up, fluffing her tail. She hopped over to the moving box, and grabbed what looked like a key, clutching it in her paws. She unlocked the box, and a gigantic spider climbed out and crawled across the floor. The spider started to weave a web over the opening of the cave.

“We are safe now,” Qamar said, dozing off into a deep sleep. I walked over to the small pond of water in the cave, setting aside my glasses, and washing my hands and face. I put my glasses back on, and stared at my reflection in the glistening water. The brown birds chirped, as I realized that all of my wrinkles from the forest of mirrors disappeared. Like an empty white board, my face was bare.  The tar-covered clothing was replaced with an abaya—a long sleeved dress that touched the floor. I smiled at who I was. I smiled at who I became.

I made salah—prayer, and cuddled on the floor next to Qamar.


I woke up to Qamar swishing her tail in my face. “Shems, we have to go to the Red Sea to collect your weapon,” she said.

“I’ll get up, give me a second,” I answered, stretching and yawning. “Weapon. What weapon? What for?” I sat up and adjusted my glasses.

“A Weapon to fight the beast.” said Qamar as standing up, with half of her body off of the ground.

I forgot about the beast, I thought. “I’m scared I can’t do it. What if I fail trying to defeat the beast?”

“If your fears didn’t exist, would you be wasting time worrying right now?” asked Qamar.

 Except, I don’t remember a time when my fears didn’t exist. I was always afraid of how people perceived me, and it ruled my life. Every day after school, I heard the same thing:

“Go back to your country, Towel-head. I should break your glasses four –eyes,” Julie said. Then, she would get towels from the locker rooms and throw them at me.

Qamar threw dirt at my face. “You didn’t answer my question, Shems. If your fears didn’t exist, would you be wasting time worrying right now?”  

“I guess not, but I don’t know how to make my fears go away. Stay by my side, Qamar. I need your help. I can’t do this alone,” I said, biting my nails and shivering.

“Always,” said Qamar.

I held out my hand, and Qamar jumped on, climbing up to my shoulder.

“Shems, walk out of the cave, and make a left,” said Qamar, directing me to the Red Sea.

As soon as I made a left out of the cave, I saw a body of water so large, that I forgot I was even in dunya-land for a moment. If it wasn’t for Qamar curling her tail next to my cheek, I would’ve thought I was at some getaway vacation, waiting for my parents to come back to me with snacks.

 “So, uhmm where is the weapon?” I asked. Qamar ran over to a large piece of wood, and said:

“Pick it up, and then drop it.”

I held the staff –a piece of wood that was at least three feet long— in my hands, and dropped it. 

The sun’s rays blinded me. Bubbles formed at the middle of the Red Sea, with mini-waves crashing into each other. Those waves got larger, until the sea parted completely, leaving an empty space. My heart raced, and I looked at the sea twice in disbelief.

“Did the sea just split in half?” I asked.

“Yes, it did,” said Qamar

“But that’s impossible.” I said, gulping.

“Nothing’s impossible, Shems,” said Qamar, fluffing her tail and snickering. “We will pass through the Red Sea, and pick up our weapons on the way. The beast is waiting for us on the other side, near the mountains. “I picked up my weapon— the wooden staff, and Qamar grabbed her weapon—a miniature mirror.  We were half way through the Red Sea when I noticed that the sunny sky filled with smoke coming from the mountains. My body tensed up, and I felt like a fish out of water, except I was gasping for air.


As soon as we reached the mountains, I held the staff close to my chest, and waited for any signs of the beast.  

“Come out, wherever you are,” Qamar said, squeaking as loud as her voice allowed.

“Why would you say that? Isn’t that the one thing you don’t say when you’re about to fight a beast? Qamar, I wanted you to help me, not kill me prematurely,” I said, staring into her beady green eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Qamar said, curling her tail behind her back.

“It’s okay, just…”

 Qamar climbed up my arm and held onto my neck. It was so quiet that I could feel her breathing, until a loud bang cracked the silence. The entire sky turned black, and a milky white bolt blinked a second of light against the darkness. Rain poured through rows of mountains. I stood with Qamar, my abaya and hijab drenched in water.

“I am here, peasant,” said a voice from far away. “Let there be light,” the voice howled, and mansions of burning paper appeared on the edges of every mountain. “I can’t play with towel-head and squirrel size extra small without seeing what I’m doing, now can I. I am a beast, am I not?” said the feminine voice, speaking again, appearing in a dark purple robe— with a mask to cover her identity.  By now, the rain and thundering halted, which gave Qamar a perfect opportunity to use the heat to her advantage.

Qamar moved her mirror, scuttling across the field over the mountain, and reflected light from the burning mansions onto the beast’s mask.

The mask wilted off, and whatever was left of the beast’s face burned into what looked like toasted bread. 

“How dare you use my power against me you blasted squirrel,” the beast said, using her own mirror to reflect the rays back at Qamar.

 The rays hit Qamar, and she popped up into the air, then falling back down from the impact of the beast’s shot.  My heart raced as I jumped up and bolted for Qamar. It started to rain. I took off my shoes, while rain collected in the empty spaces where I used to put my feet. I picked up Qamar, and felt her warm body panting. My eyes swelled with tears when I touched her burns.  I cupped handfuls of water out of my shoes, and dripped water over Qamar’s mouth.

“Wake up buddy, come on,” I said, petting what was left of her fur.

“Are you crazy? It’s impossible to wake up that atrocious dead squirrel. Give up now, because I’m about to kill you too, Towel-head,” the beast said, laughing as she stared into my eyes. I could never forget those eyes. They were grey.

“Nothing is impossible. JULIE,” I said as I dropped the staff to the ground, and fell to my knees, hands, and forehead. I prostrated to the One who created me before I was born—to the One who has never left me. Even after all this time.

“Let there be light, and break Towel-head to shr— AHHHHH. I’m, I’m melting,” the beast said as currents from the Red Sea swallowed her.

The mountain beneath me moved up, and floated on top of the water like a boat. Qamar coughed up ashes, and fluffed her half-tail. “Shams,” Qamar said.

“Qamar, you’re alive. I thought I lost you forever,” I replied, crying tears of joy.

“So now do you believe me, that nothing is impossible?”

“Of course I do. I  think a part of me always has,” I winked.

 Suddenly, the mountain-boat cracked open, and swallowed me in. I fell for miles, appearing in California, two houses away from Julie’s. I turned around, and walked back to my house. Thank God my parents aren't home yet, I thought, looking at the empty driveway and unlocking the door. I ran into my room, planting myself in bed, falling into a deep sleep.

“Shems, open up, we’re home,” my parents said, making noise shuffling groceries in the garage.

“Salamu Alaikum, peace be unto you, mom and dad,” I said, opening the door.

“Wa Alaikum as Salaam, Shems, what are you wearing to Julie’s party tonight?”

“Well, I actually decided not to go to Julie’s party tonight. But, if I did go, I would've worn my abaya, and hijab.”

“What caused the sudden change of plans?” my parents said.

“A strange dream I had earlier. And I met a friend. A very special friend,” I said.

 I'll always remember the day the ground shook. I was supposed to go to a party that would've made me the most popular girl in school, but where I ended up instead taught me love, courage, and, most importantly:  faith.