The Men Who Are: On Reading Salaam, Love
Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi
Publication Date: February 2014
Genre: Sexuality / Religion & Spirituality
Source: eGalley from publisher
Without a doubt, I am a different person from the time I read Love, InshAllah. Curiously, though, I put off reading Salaam, Love for the same reason I put off reading its predecessor. As someone as disconnected from the Muslim community as I am, I thought, wouldn’t this make me lonely? As someone struggling as hard to find love now as I was two years years ago, wouldn’t this be a reminder of what is lacking?
Just like I was with Love, InshAllah, I was proven wrong. Through these beautiful, intimately-crafted essays, I met Muslim man after Muslim man who shared his experience with love. Mind you, I don’t use “meet” in the metaphorical sense of the word, or even the usual, everyday sense of the word. Rather, I feel like I was let in and given glimpses of the deeply personal, these men at their most vulnerable.
To look at it one way, the fact that these stories were told by men is almost irrelevant. More often than not, I was reading these stories with the sensibility that they were Muslims’ experience of love; gender didn’t matter. On the other hand, there is something original about men telling such stories. I have a considerably rich understanding of Muslim women’s experiences with love, thanks to having read Love InshAllah, Love in a Headscarf, and my day-to-day work at Altmuslimah (including a recent piece in which I discussed how to make the rishta process work for Muslim women). With this personal context, however, I needed to round off my exposure and personal experience by listening to the brothers in the Muslim family.
Hence, in this review, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the kinds of male Muslim-ness I came across in this story. Choosing which stories to focus on was an especially difficult task, but necessary for the purposes of in-depth reflections.
The Men Who are Imperfect:
No one’s perfect: that’s a given. Those of us who open ourselves to love have often failed on small or grand levels. Hence, no collection of this nature would be complete without the inclusion of a story that included a story of a major failure on the part of the storyteller. In this collection, one of those stories would be Maher Reham’s “Just One Kiss.” In a very candid, almost blunt account, Reham recounted the story of his hasty, lust-driven marriage and the confusion and hardship that followed afterwards. His marriage became so rocky that his friendliness and closeness to a co-worker evolved into an full-fledged extramarital affair. The admission of this story may be shocking and disconcerting to some. However, it is important to remember that such occurrences don’t just take place in the Muslim community–oftentimes, the betrayer excuses themselves for their actions. In this story, however, the complexity and depth of the issue is revealed, in which Reham holds himself accountable while making me seriously question the phrase: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” In a strange way, this magnitude of imperfection becomes beautiful, giving me great appreciation for this story.
In “A Grown-Ass Man,” Alykhan Boolani gives the story behind his once being the “Asshole [from the jamat khana] who didn’t call.” (Which is probably not how he would explain the reason behind writing this story, but for me, that’s what it boils down to.) So Alykhan meets a lovely girl who, like him, also happens to be Ismaili. There don’t appear to be any issues, just the promise of a beautiful romance. However, their local community is, to put it lightly, extremely close-knit, something Alykhan finds, again to put it lightly, suffocating.
Through the very rich and ornate prose in this story, what I managed to make out was this: while the author was walking on air for the time after that first date, something didn’t seem right, and he couldn’t place his finger on what it was. A friend then brings him face-to-face with the fact that she looked like his sister. I am not sure whether this was meant literally, but in any case, it makes it clear to him that he can’t go on with this. In the meantime, thanks to the very “small town” nature of their community, his sister, father, and eventually his mother have found out about his date with this girl. Then, after some time, there is a run-in with the girl after one of the Friday sessions at the jamat khana, and what goes through his mind, by way of explanation, is this:
I can’t deal with the way in which the ‘ism looms so large. . . I want to stand up from prostration and speak directly into the big, scary face of Tradition, and say, Hey, bow toward me a little bit, like I bow toward you! Just give me some room, and I’ll do this my way, and I’ll do it with good heart and a right mind, like you taught me! But is this really a conversation to have with an institution? Or is it really about my mother? As in Ma, I love you, but I’m a grown-ass man and you can’t play a major part in my love life, albeit by utter cosmic accident.
So here is my twofold reaction to this:
It strikes me as odd to think that something like this didn’t work out just because it was too close to home. Seriously? People are fighting to marry their soul mates when they fall outside their sect, race, or religion, even, and you don’t follow up with someone because she is too much like you?
That said, this story is just one example of the many forces in play in the Muslim love scene. As is the case with many first-second generation immigrant families from the East, now living in the West, there is a serious struggle between the social and the personal, collectivism versus individualism. I can certainly relate to being put off by a suitor simply because they were being shoved so hard in my face–a suitor I would have gotten along with perfectly well had I met him on my own.
The Men Who Are Like Us:
…and by “Us,” I mean women. It can be delusion-ally comforting to think, especially through online discourses in the Muslim community, that male privilege is the reason for women’s struggles with love. While it is important to point out trends that favour men, it can become too easy for such explanations to become a safety blanket. By placing the blame elsewhere, we don’t have to take action, or face the truth of the situation. Truth being: we are all damaged. We are all struggling with love in this crazy, busy world, all the while fending off pressures from the community while trying to heal scars from our past.
Take Yusef Ramlize’s story “Who I Needed to Be.” Having suffered severe abuse and emotional neglect at his father’s hands, he had to find it in himself to forgive his father and “let go of the fear and pain” that had held him back for so long. This account was followed by his journey to love and a blissful union with a woman named Samira. The beginning and ending of the story are major contrasts It was so heartwrenching in the beginning but ended beautifully, leaving the reader with much hope.
The title Arif Choudhury’s story asks a question many women ask themselves: “How did I end up here?” As an average-looking man of Bangladeshi descent who doesn’t follow a career path prized by parents of Bengali girls, he has been struggling to meet someone, a process that has left him “lonely and demoralized.”
To me, this story illustrates two key points. One: it’s not just Muslim women who have to pay the price for being original and going off the beaten path. Two: one can have the right attitude, pursue whatever paths are available, and have a very basic set of criteria, and yet still be unable to find someone. After reading this story and recalling others like it, I will never make the mistake for thinking that things are somehow “harder” for women.
Arif alluded to loneliness and demoralization; states none of us are strangers to. There was a much more sober take on loneliness in Haroon Moghul’s “Prom InshAllah.” In this piece, Haroon relates the story of a soul-shattering heartbreak he experienced when he was seventeen. His reflection: “My religion says a man should not be alone with a woman. But somebody should have told me a man should not feel so alone that being with a woman is the only way he can feel life is worth living.”
Women, more so than men, are conditioned to believe that their worth is derived from their having a spouse. But that demon of need that Haroon talks about does not discriminate. Only the luckiest men and women are immune to such a mindset. In immigrant families like Haroon’s and mine, alienation from one’s parents only deepens the need for someone to communicate with, someone who already understands your view of the world. When you happen to cross paths with that someone and they can’t stay, the devastation can really take its toll. I could thus completely relate to his taking eons to recover from a short-lived relationship at such a young age.
The Men Of God:
There were some pieces in this collection in which the respective men’s faiths shone especially brightly. The ones I will focus on were shared in the the third section of the book, entitled “Sabr.” This section contained stories related to health-related crises. Without coincidence, it was here that the depth of the authors’ faiths could be seen. Take Alan Howard’s “The Promise,” his account of meeting, marrying, and caring for a woman who had cancer–until the day she passed on. His experience God-consciousness touched me incredibly deeply:
Through Joan’s ordeal, I learned to accept that there are things that happen in this world that I do not understand and cannot control, but must face with sabr anyway. Joan’s embodiment of Islam taught me how to understand and survive the tests I have been given in life, in order to grow and change and become more beautiful….my wife’s test in this life was cancer; it changed her and made her strong. My test was to take care of her, to never turn away. It was my duty to stand by her, but it was also my love. It was the core of my humanity.
The last story in this section and the collection is Randy Nasson’s “Becoming Family.” This harrowing tale opened my eyes to the trial he and his wife (one of the co-editors of this collection, Ayesha Mattu), went through. This made me ashamed of the assumptive reflections I had made in regard to Ayesha’s story in my review of Love, InshAllah. I’m grateful that the rest of the story was shared by means of her husband’s perspective, showing that “happily ever after” requires a great deal of work, more for some couples than for others.
To drive home why this book is relevant to everyone, we must visit the original question: “Why love?” Romantic love–whatever form it may take–can bestow one unimaginable bliss, while also forcing them to confront their demons and contend with underlying issues in their broader communities. In the case of an enormous, decentralized, and often dehumanized community like the Muslim community, all those “usual” elements of love stories are increased by tenfold.
I am not sure Salaam, Love is as revelatory or groundbreaking as Love, InshAllah was, and that could be a very good sign of how far along this enterprise has come. Yes, there are stories that could make some of a certain slant uncomfortable, but to someone like me, that isn’t news anymore. It is for this reason I took it as a continuation of conversation, rather than its beginning. At the time I read Love, InshAllah, I was bearing witness to my personal stories. I was learning that what happened with me were not anomalies or freakish incidents, but part of my personal growth and journey in faith.
Recently, however, I am becoming especially conscious of the shared struggles with love in the Muslim community, and this book assured me that I am not alone. I’m not the only one who had to overcome a lifetime of conditioning to learn how to love myself. I’m not the only one who is confused by inter-generational conflict. And should something work out for me, sooner or later (InshAllah), I will harbour no illusions about that being an end in itself.