The girl didn't want to remember her name, so she became a dreamer in order to forget. In this life she was unsatisfactory. She was worse than nothing. She was from Bolivar, Miss., and was now living in northwest Detroit. Somehow she didn't consider it living. Her parents, Larn and Mazer Moore, were tall, handsome, striking people, as were her two brothers and two sisters. "I was short, dark; I felt unattractive," says Fatma Ismail. She fights back tears and looks at the ceiling of the living room in the white two-story house in Wilkes-Barre. "My only friend was my grandmother. We looked alike."
When she lost touch with her grandmother, America Jackson, the girl said goodbye to reality. Soon after, she heard someone calling to her. Impeccable men in bow ties were selling produce and prophecy from the back of a fruit truck. The dreamer accepted their version of El-Islam. Even though it would not make her beautiful, it would let her cover her shame in the full dress of a Muslim woman. When she met a man named Ibrahim Ismail some years later, she was working for an optometrist and showing nothing but her eyes. Still, she couldn't believe them. Her name was now Fatma, which means "The favored daughter of the prophet, over the women of paradise."
"Ibrahim was brilliant," Fatma says. "He was about 5'10", but he had a commanding presence about him. When he came into a room, he commanded it. I found myself swept away by him."
One of Ibrahim Ismail's legs was nearly two inches shorter than the other, the result of a crippling fall when he was five years old. His kidneys would soon fail. But he had traveled, seen, done. He had converted to the Sunni Muslim sect by the time he was 21. He made Fatma feel that she was what she had never been—beautiful, wise, worthy of respect. So, when he spoke in fluent Arabic and broken English, there was no reason for her not to believe that he was from Khartoum, the capital city of the Sudan, as he claimed. Where else could he be from? Well, his parents were from Brunswick, Ga., and he had been raised in Elizabeth, N.J. But a Muslim man in muslin wrappings who speaks Arabic and comes from New Jersey would be considered strange, if not nuts. Such a man from the Sudan, however, might be a prophet.
"I accepted it, even though I suspected for a long time that it wasn't true," says Fatma. "Only later did he tell me it was this incredible facade." Not so incredible. In the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, a black man from the South who wanted to eat at a fancy restaurant in Atlanta, Birmingham or Biloxi was out of luck. But what if he felt he could chew, swallow and digest fine food as well as the next man? He could put on a turban, speak another language, go back to that same restaurant in that same time and be given a smile of bewilderment and a seat by the window. Sometimes, in the course of history, incredible facades are the order of the day.
"He was a brilliant man," says Fatma. "He had traveled abroad, and he knew the true nature of El-Islam, not the Black Muslim stuff. He gave lectures on religious jurisprudence and raised money for the Muslim community, traveling to the Middle East and meeting with leaders. He told me he had dreamed he would meet a wife. He met me. What can I tell you? I loved him."
Ibrahim and Fatma married in 1963 and moved back to Elizabeth, then to Newark in 1967. Newark was where Fatma gave birth to Raghib (RAHG-ib) on Nov. 18, 1969, Qadry (KAH-dree, "the strong and powerful") a year later and Sulaiman (SOO-lay-mahn, "the wise") two years later. On the birth certificates of all three boys the parents' birthplaces were listed as the Sudan. The sons were raised in the Islamic culture and called their mother and father by the Arabic honorifics, Ume and Abua.
The boys went to the Sister Clara Muhammad School in Newark and traveled to other Islamic schools and mosques in cities around New Jersey and New York. They won admiration for their poise, their mastery of the multiplication tables and the ease with which they read verses from the Koran.
"If there was a father who could give love and understanding, and teach his children about faith and share whatever he had with his sons, it was Ibrahim," says Fatma. She is in the living room of the house owned by her mother-in-law, Laura Bauknight, in Wilkes-Barre. Raghib and Qadry are at her side. "He could call their names and they would be obedient. He had that kind of voice, that kind of effect on them."
"Knowledge," Raghib says. "My father gave me a thirst for knowledge. He said it was the key to everything. He wanted us to learn. Obedient? Well, there was no such thing as talking back to your parents."