“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,” Mohammed said, standing on a makeshift podium in front of a flock of younger sister’s stuffed animals. He crosses the air in front of him, blessing the crowd.
He wore a papal mitre he made himself using an old bedazzled blouse his mother threw out and a cardboard box. His mozzetta, wrapped around his small ten year old body, was a robe his father stole from a Holiday Inn when they vacationed in Florida the year before. He kept his papal garments under his bed so his parents wouldn't find them.
Mohammed’s family were not overly religious. His parents went to the mosque on Fridays, for Jummah prayer. His mother was more religious than his father. She prayed all her prayers. His father owned a liquor store and was less practicing. They did not exactly understand Mohammed's obsession with the Pope. He has never been to a Catholic church.
“Mohammed, give me back my toys!” Amany, his little sister, yelled. “I’m gonna to tell mama you’re playing Pope again.”
Mohammed adjusted his mitre and looked at his sister. “They are blessed. Take them." And he shooed her away with his hand.
“Mama!” Amany said, staring at her brother.
Their mother, Mariam, came in, slowly, as is her way. “What is it, now?” She was wearing an extra large Newports Cigarette t-shirt that her husband, Halim, brought home from the store. He always picked up merchandise from salesmen who came in to make their weekly orders.
“Mohammed is pretending to be the Pope.” Amany wasn’t exactly sure what or who the Pope was. She just knew that it was something that Mohammed was not allowed to be. Even when he was not playing the Vicar of Rome, she would threaten to tell their parents that he was.
“Roohi ala gurfa'tich,” Mariam said.
“Mama!” Amany cried. “I didn’t do anything.”
Mariam didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. She just pursed her lips which made Amany collect her toys and run to her room.
Once the door to Amany's room slammed shut, Mariam sat at the edge of Mohammed’s bed.
“Shu kulna?” she said, softly.
“No more Pope.”
“Because we’re Muslim,” Mohammed said, disappointed. He was staring at his house slippers-Pope shoes, unable to look his mother in her eyes. He knew he was not going to get in trouble. His mother was not going to give him ketla for it. But he did not like upsetting her.
“Alhamdiallah,” his mother said. She helped him take off his mitre and robe. “I’m going to take these, okay?”
“Okay, mama,” he said, finally looking at her.
Mariam stood up from the bed and kissed her little Pope on the forehead and left the room. Mohammed sat there for a moment, waiting to hear his mother’s footsteps slowly fade. Once they did, he went into the closet to pulled out his spare mitre and a few action figures. He lined them up on the floor and begin reciting, poorly, the Ava Maria.
Mohammed’s obsession with the Pope came after watching a televised address by Pope John Paul II, during the Gulf War. The pope condemned the war and advocated for peace in the Middle East. Halim watched the event with his son.
“Who’s that, baba?” Mohammed asked his father. He was entranced by the Pope.
“That’s Pope John Paul the Second,” Halim answered.
“...the second?” Mohammed asked, confused as to why this man had a number in his name.
“He’s the second John Paul,” his father answered, annoyed. He turned up the volume hoping it would shut his curious son up.
“There was another one?”
“Yes, but he died.”
“So this man took his name?”
“Yes. Be quiet.”
It was then that Mohammed decided he would be Pope John Paul the Third.
“Can I be Pope?”
“Stupid boy. You are Muslim.”
“Muslims can’t be pope?”
“Mariam, shoofi ibnich, il hmar,” Halim yelled to his wife.
Mohammed began to cry.
Mariam walked in, drying her hands on her apron. “Laish bit ayit habibi?”
“Baba called me a hmar. I heard him.” He began to wipe the tears from his face, causing his cheeks to turn red. Mariam glared at her insensitive husband.
“He wants to be the Pope. Imagine. A Muslim Pope.” Halim laughed from his gut, loud and baritone.
“Oh shut up you,” Mariam said to Halim. “You wanted to be a doctor but you failed tawjeehi.”
This quieted Halim. He turned off the television and stormed out of the living room. He did not like his wife bringing up his failures. But Mariam was not going to let Halim talk down to their children.
“I can’t be Pope, mama?” Mohammed said through sobs.
“I’m sorry habibi. Unless bit seer Mesih, you can’t be Pope,” she said, with a slight giggle in her voice.
Mohammed knew she wasn’t laughing out of malice. So he laughed with her. Mariam went to the back of the house to check on Amany, who was napping. Mohammed turned the TV back on and watched the rest of the Pope’s speech, hanging onto every latin phrase.
“Pope Mohammed the First,” he said out loud, nodding at the way it sounded rolling out off his lips.
The following morning, Mohammed ran to the bus, his sister yelling for him to wait. “Mohammed! Wait for me!”
The bus ride to school, Mohammed did his math homework while Amany ate her lunch from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox.
“That’s for lunch, Amany,” Mohammed said without looking up from his math packet.
“Do you want to bless it?” Amany said, her snark coming from her father.
“Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,” Mohammed said in broken latin. Their neighbor was an old Italian woman who used to teach latin at a University. Mohammed began taking latin classes from her in exchange for cleaning her backyard from time to time. It was not a secret, however, and Mariam did not mind it, though Halim did not understand it at all. He would rather his son learn Arabic.
“I’m telling mama when we get home,” Amany said, moving her food away from Mohammed’s prayers.
“No one likes a tattle tale, Amany,” Mohammed said, going back to his homework.
“Okay class, settle down,” Ms. Busek, Mohammed’s fifth grade teacher, said. She was a young teacher with long brown hair and a smile that took up the majority of her face. “Today, we’re going to talk about your future. We’re going to go around and I want you all to share what you would like to be when you get older.”
Suddenly, thirty little arms shot up. Everyone wanted to share. Ms. Busek tried to calm them down again. “Okay, wow. Let’s start with...Samantha.”
Samantha stood up from her seat and took a bow for some reason. She was the teacher’s pet. The know-it-all. She was also Mohammed’s first crush. “When I grow up, I want to be the President of the United States of America,” she said proudly.
“Impressive, Samantha...and why do you want to be the President?” Ms. Busek asked in a very enthusiastic voice.
“Well...my daddy says that the president now isn’t good and that I could do a better job.”
“He might be right,” Ms. Busek said.
Everyone clapped for Samantha and she bowed again.
The rest of the students shared their dreams. Most of them wanted to be astronauts, police officers, firefighters. Matty wanted to be a dog, which everyone laughed at.
“Okay, Mohammed, it’s your turn.” Ms. Busek said.
Mohammed stood up and cleared his throat. He was a shy boy, never really wanting too much attention on him. Everyone turned and stared at him, waiting for him to say something.
“Well...I...uh...I..I want to be the Pope.”
Ms. Busek laughed loudly but quickly stifled it with the palm of her hand. Some of the other students laughed, while others looked confused. “I’m sorry Mohammed. That wasn’t nice of me. Why do you want to be the Pope?”
“The Pope’s awesome. He gets to hang out in a castle in Rome. He gets to wear an cool hat.”
“But you have to be Catholic to be Pope,” Johnny said. His parents were Italian and very Catholic.
“I’m gonna be the first Muslim Pope,” Mohammed said, nervously.
Johnny was bigger than Mohammed. Bigger than all the other students in the class except for Clare, who was held back a year. Johnny stood up and said, “No. Muslims can’t be Pope, Mohammed.”
“Johnny,” Ms. Busek said, her voice deeper than before. “What’s rule number one in my class.”
Johnny sat down and whispered rule number one.
“I’m sorry, we can’t hear you.” Ms. Busek said.
“Respect everyone’s voice,” Johnny said, looking directly at Mohammed, who shrugged and sat back down.
The rest of the students shared their dreams and aspirations, which were not any different than the students before them. Teachers, cops, presidents.
“This has been great. After recess, we’re going to continue this with a writing exercise,” Ms. Busek said, clapping her hands.
The students groaned, except for Samantha who started clapping along with Ms. Busek. The bell rang.
During recess, kids came up to Mohammed to be blessed and receive the Eurchrist, which was a bag of Ritz crackers Mohammed brought. A few of the students, mainly Mohammed’s friends stood in line.
“Corpus Cristi,” Mohammed said, to Elias, his best friend. He then placed a broken Ritz cracker on Elias’ tongue.
“Mmmm, tasty,” Elias said. The kids behind him laughed.
“Eel, you’re supposed to say Amen,” Mohammed said. He called him Eel because of a trip to the zoo, Elias stuck his hand in a tank and pet one of the eels on display.
“Oh yeah. Amen!”
“Sanguis Christi,” Mohammed said, pointing to the water fountain behind him.
Elias ran to the fountain and drank the water. “Amen!” he yelled.
The other kids laughed.
“Mama, I got an Excellent on my work!” Mohammed ran into the house but slipped on the wet tiles.
“Mohammed!” Mariam said, laughing, watching her son splay out on the wet floor. “You see me mopping.”
“Shit.” Mohammed said, holding the back of his head.
“You think the Pope says bad words,” Amany said from the doorway. “Idiot.”
“Amany, don’t call your brother an idiot.”
Amany rolled her eyes, took off her shoes and socks and walked passed her brother, who was still on the floor, clutching schoolwork.
“What were you saying, habibi?” Mariam said, picking up her son.
“I got an Excellent on my paper today.”
“Can I read it?”
“No, you’re gonna be mad.”
“Ana? Mad? At you?”
“Okay, fine.” He hands her the now crumpled, wet paper.
“Pope Mohammed the First,” she reads. She looks at him from the corner of her eyes.
“Ms. Busek said we had to write something. So I wrote that. It’s just a story.” Mohammed lied.
Mariam walked over to the living room and sat on the couch, crossing one leg over the knee of the other. She silently read her son’s story, taking in every word. There are moments where she giggles.
“What?” Mohammed asked.
“Nothing, habibi. This part is funny, where you give your friends crackers.” She said, flipping the page. “Now huss, let me finish.”
“Okay, okay…” He lets her finish, while watching her eyes scroll left to right.
“This is very good habibi.”
“You think so?” Mohammed said beaming.
“I have an idea.”
“I’m going to take you to that Church by the park.”
“How do you know the name of it?”
“We pass by it every day going to school.” He could not stop smiling.
“Yes, of course. We’ll go on Sunday. You can talk to the priest.”
He jumped up and down excitedly. He hugged his mother hard and kisses her cheeks. “Thank you mama!! I can’t wait.”
“Yallah, rooh min wijhi, ya Baba.” She laughed at herself. She did not know why she encouraged her son. She knew that she had to teach her children to be good Muslims. It was her duty as their mother. But she also understood that her son was young. She loved that her son was curious.
“Pope Mohammed the First,” she said to herself, watching her little son as he ran to his room.
Once Mohammed turned the corner, he slipped and fell onto the floor.
“Shit,” he said.