On reading "The Upstairs Wife"

 22238381If I were to be an official-ish, published writer, I would be a nonfiction writer. I would hope to be the kind of writer who writes a book like this. Zakaria’s book illustrates a private, painful family story in parallel to the story of Pakistan as experienced by the swollen, violent, disturbed, distorted city that is Karachi.

Nothing is perfect—in true journalistic fashion, things are simply conveyed as they are, yet artfully so. Islamization campaigns in Pakistan are shown as no worse than the corruption and hypocrisy of secular leadership. (One exception: I couldn’t help but feel that there was a bit of sympathy on her part towards the Muhajjir Qaumi Movement—MQM, but that could be just me.)

This is also the story of how Zakaria’s paternal aunt’s husband ended up taking a second wife. This is not an Orientalist horrifying tale of how Islam allows polygamy and how it is terrible. It is an examination of the social realities of arranged marriages, women’s roles in society, love, and the tightrope a middle-class Pakistani family must walk to maintain its respectability. It is also the story of human nature, how easy it is to hate for the sake of hating, and how the most negative sentiments can become lifelong companions. It is the story of how vulnerable a woman is when her sole role is to serve her husband, when her life is built around him. This is not just Aunt Amina’s story: it is the story of millions of women, married and unmarried, whose worth is measured by their marital status, whether they are mothers, whether they work or are taught to have aspirations of their own. Aunt Amina is the chronically bereaved family member you will desperately want to avoid, to avoid all that negative energy, while fully understanding that she is the way she is because that is all she knows, and that is her reality.

On a different note: I kept wondering, as I read the book, what or who emboldened Zakaria to write so many details about her aunt’s life. No one would want their life put on display this way. In the Western context of publishing and the accountability of telling stories, “consent” wouldn’t come close to describing the kind of license the subject of a story would have to provide. Nothing is more powerful than a private, true story, but shouldering the responsibility of sharing this kind of a narrative has both serious legal and (I feel) spiritual implications.

Allah knows the author’s intentions best, and is the judge in all matters.

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On Reading the Organized Mind

This book seems awfully scattered at times and I am sure it could have done its job in two-thirds the number of pages it takes 18693669up. I didn’t read all of it. But I did come across a review of it and wanted to share a key point:

Guard your mind. Yes, it’s cool to live in the dazzling array of electronics, but while it’s convenient that you can instantly find out how much the Empire State Building weighs that doesn’t mean you always should.

What could be more purely Islamic than the notion of guarding your mind?

Other things that speak to the same theme:

On Reading Alif the Unseen

Image source: Amazon

Title: Alif the Unseen

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Date: June 2012

Genre: Mystery/Thriller/Suspense

Source: eBook from local library

Please note that this book is a thriller-fantasy genre blend. I don’t read those genres, so I may not be the best judge of the book in that regard. However, there is a significant device used that led me to ponder the implications of reading this book as a Muslim. 

The book begins in griminess and heartbreak. Alif is an Arab-Indian living in one of the poorest districts of a large, nameless state in the in the Middle East. “Alif” is actually a screen name for his hacktivist activities, which involve protecting a variety of commercial and political entities subject to censorship by the state. He is betrayed by his lover and exposed to the Hand, the state’s digital security force and is forced into being a fugitive. In the process, a strange book is thrusted upon him. Titled Alf Yeom, or A Thousand Nights, it is a centuries-old narration by jinns that is transcribed by humans, imbibed with cryptic meanings, and, apparently, capable of elevating humankind to unprecedented technological heights. Or descent into complete chaos. As Alif struggles to understand the power of this book and out of the reach of the Hand, he finds himself in the company of jinn. Some of those jinn are helpful, others are mischievously vague, and some are outright demonic.

What I loved most about this book is how it enmeshes the spiritual and the digital. A toothless dervish blesses a USB key. A jinniya (a female jinn) who collects information in all forms tells Alif that “with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized . . . it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information.”

One of the most memorable passages in the book directly refers to one of the themes of this blog: living in strange times. A sheikh tells Alif that

We don’t live in ordinary times . . . I know it’s common for old people to complain about the modern moment, and lament the passing of a golden age . . . but in our case, my boy, I think I am not mistaken when I say that something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era. Fictional governments are accepted without comment, and we can sit in a mosque and have a debate about the fictional pork a fictional character consumes in a video game, with every gravity we would accord something quite real.

I also adore Dina’s character and her embodiment of niqabi badass-ity. I’m still recovering from the the character Rabeya in The Taqwacores. Her bad-assity ventured too far near offensive territory. Hence, I needed another niqabi fictional character like Dina to counter her. I did, however, feel that Dina’s character development is a bit hasty (a concern I’ll discuss further below).

Dina gives Alif a searing critique when he suggests that they burn the Alf Yeom:

You can speak casually about burning the Alf Yeom for the same reason you’d be horrified if I suggested burning The Satanic Verses–because you have reactions, not convictions.

This made me think of how “Muslim rage” can be so reactionary, and the pitfalls of perpetual skepticism. Arguing for the sake of arguing cannot possibly be a sign of one with taqwa. Along with Alif, I felt that Dina called me out, too. (If you’re surprised by this, that’s because you have not seen the tiffs my mother and I have.) I was extremely humbled by this realization and am so glad that I could make such a personal connection to dialogue.

One of the turning points in the book starts with Alif’s realization about how he can penetrate the Hand’s digital fortress. This realization comes about—wait for it—when he hears the sheikh speak of how there are endless interpretations to the verses of the Quran, all existing simultaneously, without contradiction. What follows is a magnificent description of a two-day hacking session, where Alif’s creation is said to be a giant construction, and the Hand is anthromorphized as a beast. Wilson’s affinity for the comic book format, which often traditionally involve action and head-on battle with evil forces, are fully evident in this epic scene.

This book is best enjoyed as a fantasy/thriller novel, which means that it is more plot-oriented than literary. But I am not sure how I feel about some of the implications of that. For a nonbeliever who treats this book as a true-blooded fantasy, they may swallow this representation of other world of the jinn, hook, line and sinker. They temporarily suspend the outside world while living this story, and cheerfully put it away once it is over.

But can the same be said for Muslims?

When you are growing up in a Muslim-majority community, jinns are talked about in hushed voices, in a way that one might relate ghost stories with complete conviction. I feel that this attitude (although it may be more of a cultural than a religious attitude) is out of sync with the treatment of the jinn in this novel. In this story, a jinn is a being whose place of abode almost all of the main characters enter into fairly easily. They can be communicated and bargained with, even called upon in times of need. And there’s something a bit off about the nonchalance with which this happens. For an entity that we don’t have too much knowledge of, it feels as if the book goes too much into describing them.

As the sheikh in the book says, “We are not meant to fear [jinn] because they are powerful, but because we ourselves are so easily mislead.” Perhaps, this depiction of will unintentionally mislead us. While having living, speaking nonhuman characters works well for the purposes of a fantasy novel, it does not mesh well when it involves a fundamental article of belief. For a Muslim must believe in the jinn, whether or not she chooses to dwell on them.

Are the world of the unseen and its inhabitants something like what the author describes in this book? Are they an interplay between fur, claws, shadows, and smokeless flame? They vcould be. They could also be a thousand different other possibilities, all existing together, without contradiction. But I’m not sure we have the capacity to retain all those possibilities. We are beings who seek representations, generalizations. We drawn to depictions of people, places, and things from works that affect us deeply. (Try to think of the Titanic disaster without thinking of the James Cameron movie. Not easy, is it?) So it bothers me that the book has now given a concrete definition, a description, of the world of jinns. Will this mean that we will unconsciously start thinking that we have more knowledge of the unseen than we actually do?

I do want to emphasize that I am very, very happy with the subject matter of the book and cannot be more thrilled that some of the main characters in the book are jinn. What I can’t help pondering, though, is that they exist in the novel in between a fantastic and a matter-of-fact way while they should be more real. My personal preference would have been a magical realist treatment that takes this existence as reality, but that is a too tall an order for a book of this genre. Perhaps another more literary novel can attempt this treatment.

On a different note, I also felt that the character transitions of the female characters were rather abrupt and didn’t take place in a very organic manner. (If you have not read the book, you may want to skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers.) The impressions I had of them in the beginning and towards the end of the book completely changed, but there was too much happening in terms of plot for me to understand or fully process the changes. Dina, for example, goes from being a fiercely religious character who thinks The Golden Compass is blasphemous to a sharply-witted woman who easily lays out Alif’s lack of convictions. Intisar goes from being a brilliant scholar and an enchantingly and inaccessibly beautiful aristrocat to a hollow, selfish, and petty girl who refuses to marry Alif because she didn’t want to “not have nice things.” Even if Alif’s change of perception in regard to these two women partially explains their drastic transitions, I still felt somewhat cheated as a reader, as though I was never supposed to see the two women the way I did at the beginning of the novel.

This is a marvelous story, a highly recommended read for anyone even mildly interested in a fantasy novel with refreshingly original characters in a currently relevant political context. I cannot be more thrilled that the book has met with so much mainstream success. I love that these characters now exist in the literary world without apology. I love its recurring Islamic motifs and its relevance to the digital age. I was terribly morose when the book finished, because, for now, I’m not sure I can have a similar reading experience again.

On Reading All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim

Title: All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim (I Speak For Myself, Volume II)

Editors: Wajahat M. Ali & Zahra T. Suratwala

Publication Year: 2012

Genre: Autobiography/Anthology

Source: eGalley from publisher

So far, I’ve talked about Muslim women and the female experience a great deal. Writing and meditating about stories I can identify with, however, has made me curious about the experiences that I cannot speak for. And that curiosity starts at home. What does it mean, I have wondered, to be a Muslim man?

That’s why I was very excited about reading the just-published All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim. The collection contains a vast array of essays from Muslim Americans who are poets, doctors, businessmen, fathers, religious leaders, political activists, and artists. They come from a mashup of highly varied religious and ethnic backgrounds and political allegiances. The only thing constant in throughout their narratives is their self-identification as Americans. Yet, as Wajahat Ali states in the introduction, “the American Muslim men profiled within these pages eradicate antiquated assumptions of what it means to be ‘Muslim,’ ‘American,’ and even a ‘man.’” Without a doubt, the book delivers as promised, opening the eyes of both non-Muslim and Muslim readers to how diverse and multifaceted the Muslim American male experience can be.

I now realize that as I read the collection, I was more sensitive to the “Muslim male” aspect of the essays than their “American” dimension. (It was simply a matter of personal preference, perhaps due to the fact that I didn’t grow up in North America and can’t relate to “Americanness.”) Furthermore, I feel the more effective stories were those that were focused on one topic or one incident, particularly those dealing with spirituality and the meaning of manhood. I’d like to pay homage to some of the most memorable essays in this collection by recalling what made them special to me:

  • Haroon Moghul’s essay “The Faith that Faith Produced,” the first piece in the anthology, opens with a chillingly honest admission: “I was washing dishes in the kitchen when I stopped believing in God.” He continues to recount the implications of disbelief, illustrating how it was not until he suffered from spiritual angst and self-doubt that he truly start believing.
  • In “On Baseball and Islam in America,” Shahzad Hussain Abbass makes a memorable comparison between teaching his young son to bat and to stand still in prayer.
  • Baraka Blue writes beautifully in “Manhood” about how visiting Muslim-majority countries made him reexamine his own masculinity. He was struck by the easy physical intimacy between heterosexual men as well as their lack of self-consciousness about shedding tears during heartfelt prayer, realizing that these are manifestations of the genuine love fellow Muslims have for one another and Allah.
  • “Muslim After Midnight” by Obaid H. Siddiqui was definitely one of my favorite essays in this collection. He recounts a single incident of racist tension and the interior dialogue that goes takes place in his mind during the event. I feel that the piece illustrates the confusion and self-assertion that takes place in the head of a Muslim American man when his “belongingness” is questioned.
  • Tynan Power’s “Stepping Across the Gender Divide,” is a fascinating and must-read account from a transgender Muslim who experienced what it was like to be a Muslim woman before he became a man. He recalls the ambiguity and confusion of his transition in a way I will never forget:  “At what point, exactly, was I considered a man? When was I to guard my modesty from the navel to the knee instead of by drawing my veil down over my chest?”
  • Michael Mohammad Knight’s “From Islam to Islam” was one of the few essays that managed to have considerable breadth while leaving the reader with a single, pointed message. It spans the story of his conversion and his experience with numerous Muslim sects and perspectives, concluding that for him, to be Muslim is to find peace in confusion.

These are just a few gems from an impressive collection written by even more impressive and accomplished men. One needs to only look at the biographies of the contributors to know that their stories and successes are a great source of inspiration for those of us who want to make a difference for our ummah.

One of the shortcomings of this collection, I feel, were the stories that seemed a bit vague and unfocused in their subject matter. They just seemed to skim cover personal and professional history, religious beliefs, and how those don’t conflict with their belonging to United States and being American. Although I was interested in reading such pieces at first, after a certain point, they all started to sound the same.

In this great review of the book for Altmuslimah, Abrar Qadir highlighted another important caveat about this collection: the voices in this anthology largely come from highly successful professionals. My concern with the book is an extension of that: it seems to cater not just economic privilege, but social accomplishments. Every contributor had a lengthy and impressive biography teeming with degrees, titles and awards. As happy as I am that there are so many accomplished men in the Muslim community, I feel like having one overachiever after another also contributed to the tendency for for some essays to just be lists of accomplishments, making them alienated rather than more familiar.

Abrar mentioned the missing voice of the “taxi-driver or mini-mart owner, those who bear the brunt of the ‘go back where you came from’ rhetoric this book is designed to combat.” Along with this omission, I feel is that of another kind of contributor I’d like to have heard from: the guy from I.T. who can’t wait for his World of Warcraft session and pizza at the end of the day. The one who didn’t have a chance to make a difference and be recognized for it, who just does his part by being a great son, brother, friend, and colleague.

At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there is much benefit in having such accomplished individuals tell their stories: it makes one aware of the immense amount of work being done in business, the media, and politics by such men. Were it not for this collection, I would have may not have known about Mohamed Geraldez founding the world’s first vegan necktie company, or learned about Kamran Pasha’s approach to storytelling, or explored new avenues in music from Muslims (thanks to introductions to Baraka Blue and Adisa Banjoko). This book shows that there are endless possible paths to being Muslim and living a life that upholds Islam, however we define it. If I have a teenage son, I’m going to make sure he reads this book, so that he knows that as a Muslim man in the making, American or not, there’s a legacy he can look up to and be inspired by.

This book is a much-needed and very illuminating read for both Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, American or otherwise. These stories are immensely heartfelt, humorous, and inspirational, and it made me very proud and happy to know these terrific men are a part of our ummah. It was a pleasure to hear from each and every one of them.

On Reading Love in a Headscarf

Image source: openlibrary.org

Title: Love in a Headscarf

Author: Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

Publication Year: 2009

Genre: Autobiography

Source: I was lent a copy by Amy, who borrowed it from Carina.

So here, in my own words, is the underlying premise of Love in a Headscarf: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single, practicing, devout Muslim woman in possession of intelligence, wit, and beauty must be in want of a husband who has the same qualities. As well as romance. Lots of romance.

The novel is an account of the author’s search for “the One” through highly structured and family and community-oriented means. She also dwells a great deal on how her faith shaped her search for a partner, alongside more general discussions about Islam and being Muslim in the west.

One Amazon reviewer called the book “interesting, but not uplifting.” Their review is a good way to pave way into my experience of reading the book:

For those single Muslim men and women who are enduring the struggle to find mates or are preparing to embark on that journey, [this book] is not helpful and is even rather despairing at times, although that was clearly not intended by the author. The unwounded in the modern Muslim marriage plight may miss that negative tenor, but the potential emotional drag for those with real-life experience in this arena may be enough to recommend passing over this book.

So true. For the most part, this book was depressing. While I enjoyed seeing how the author’s experiences with meeting prospects mirrored mine (having to suffer through men who are inexcusably non-punctual, who hate books and those who read them, who show up simply because their parents forced them into it, who are fixated on matters of height even if it comes down to a few inches, etc.) they simply reinforced my frustrations about the deeply flawed assumptions that have crept into cultural practices surrounding marriage and courtship (or lack thereof) in the Muslim South Asian diaspora. Janmohamed does question some of these assumptions, but not at all in a way that I found satisfying or particularly illuminating.

I did like reading about how the author braved “the instruments of social compliance” designed to keep women in line by doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and buying a racing car. I appreciate the idea of her wanting to be the change she wanted to see. Another really interesting point she brings up is how, in the final stages of the husband hunt, she learns to see men not just as potential suitors, but just as who they are. “Each person,” she writes, “was a delicious moment to be savoured with respect for their humanity.” This healthy attitude is a wonderful way to grow and learn through what can often be a dreary, heartbreaking process of finding a spouse.

However, for a story that is so centred on finding deep, enduring, romantic love, I feel that the book is strangely devoid of it. On the occasions the author feels a deep attraction to a prospective spouse, the rapport between them comes off as fleeting and superficial. The result being: even when she met someone who seemed promising, I couldn’t be less indifferent about what the outcome would be. There are worthy points made about “capital ‘L’ love,” and seeking to be closer to the divine. While they were important and noteworthy, they weren’t particularly memorable for me. (This Altmuslimah review, however, is more appreciative of this aspect of the book.)

I also think the book had tangents into discussions about Islam and womanhood that seemed a bit elementary and intended for non-Muslim audiences who are not familiar with Islam. I could see how it was intended to frame the author’s experience of being a British Asian Muslim woman who wears the hijab, but to me they were just wearisome distractions, parts to be skimmed through just so I could get back to her story of how she finally meets her husband.

I suppose my not wholly enjoying this book largely has to do with my questioning whether the kind of marriage process that Janmohamed went through can always be equated to finding love. As much as I want to believe that parents, imams, and a vicious team of aunties have the potential to find “the one” for you, the whole point of the “one” is that there is something that grows organically with them, a process that I can’t imagine naturally occurring under the watchful eyes of community elders and inordinate pressures to get married. That is why Muslim stories that are not as “by the book” as community leaders would like them to be–honest, conflict-ridden accounts such as those in Love, InshAllah or of Muslim men’s experiences with finding a partner–resonate so much more with me.

I have great respect for Janmohamed’s enacting of the changes that she wanted to see by challenging stereotypes about Muslim women. However, as far as the marriage process is concerned, the changes I think are needed require something much more radical, something that skirts along the edges of conventional, accepted territory. It requires more than a few raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers over what kind of a vehicle a woman drives to the mosque. The system needs more than a poke: it needs a good shake. It starts with an acceptance of the fact that love can take on an unlikely, unpredictable form that our social interactions and suitor screening processes need to make room for so that it may be easier for the single Muslim to fulfill half their deen, so to speak.

Janmohamed’s story is not every Muslim woman’s story, for she is fortunate enough to exercise her agency in a close-knit community she has known her whole life. It is up to each of us to seriously and honestly examine our needs, contexts and values and forge a path to our future partner that works within our systems or in opposition to it.

On Reading The Good Muslim

Source: Wikipedia

Note: A different version of this review appeared in Altmuslimah and Muslimah Media Watch

Title: The Good Muslim

Author: Tahmima Anam

Publication Date: August 2011

Genre: Literary fiction; historical fiction 

Source: eBook from library

I have made an exception to my rule for not writing reviews of books I disliked. I guess I can be flexible with books that deeply frustrated me and whose authors are already doing more than well for themselves.

The Good Muslim may have the most raving reviews and literary accolades, but it also uses the device of the educated, “modern” woman who “loses” her brother to Islamic fundamentalism. Why is it that the works that show the worst of Muslims become so esteemed?

Although I had not read Anam’s preceding book The Golden Age, I read this book because I was fascinated by its premise: a woman’s struggle to find meaning in a post-war, newly-independent Bangladesh that had emerged out of one of the darkest periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history. The title also intrigued me. As someone who reviews book from a faith-based perspective, I could not not read this book.

Alas, it didn’t deliver.

One of the reasons is its tiresome motif of a “modern” woman in a “backward” society. Maya is a doctor and fiercely independent woman who left home after her war veteran and born-again Muslim brother Sohail became so distant and religious that she knew their relationship would never be the same again.

Maya is a strong female figure continuously at odds with her environment: she writes for an underground radical publication, she is banished from a village for defending a pregnant woman, she pleads with her brother to not send his son to the madrassa. Her character is strong and admirable in theory, but for someone has never been away from Bangladesh, she persistently gives one the impression of being a foreigner in her own country, and not just in the figurative sense. In a tumultuous, confused world, she is the only one who has any sense, one of the contrasts that I found suspiciously simplistic.

What’s troublesome is that it is not just the war, but the role of Islam in Maya’s household that is used to delineate the “before” and “after” scenarios in this book. Maya’s alienation has to more do with her holding onto a very, very distant past where she, her brother, and their college friends attended his debates, musical recitals, and readings, and didn’t take religion the least bit seriously. After the war, Sohail is so haunted by the atrocities he witnessed and committed that he can only find refuge in religion, causing him to completely disavow his older self. In this “good Muslim’s” universe, it is impossible for books and faith to coexist. As Sohail burns his books, the relics of his educated past, there is a haunting echo: “There can only be One.” Apparently, tawhid—belief in the Oneness of God, that everyone and everything is connected to him—has no room for a literary inner existence.

This book isn’t meant to resonate with someone who might know something of the war or its aftermath. This novel meant to resonate with Western readers who can relate enough to Maya’s carefree pre-war life and are far enough removed from her post-war reality, making it easy for them to identify with her alienation and shake their heads over the atrocities taking place “over there.” The oft-used devices are hard to overlook. Maya elicits the help of a poor boat assistant to look for her nephew, and class boundaries are dissolved in an instant: the alienated but heroic woman is given a quaintly likable, well-meaning guide in this foreign, exotic land. There is another war-damaged character whose secularism has remained intact, and his unabiding love for Maya gives the story just the right amount of hope and romance, because who wants to read a book that’s all about death and the depressing aftermath of war?

The increasingly predictable and wearisome tricks are also employed: the overbearing religious patriarch, a child’s becoming victim to a sexual predator in a religious institution, and equating religion to disavowal of all worldly pursuits. Islam’s teachings could not be further from the condition of being “Muslim” that is depicted in this book, and as it concerns me that a book that is seen to be such a literary achievement gives such a skewed depiction of what being a Muslim looks like.

While fiction can give insights into human realities in ways that other accounts can’t, this book too carelessly lopes in religion to make the suggestion that the human condition would be so much better “only if it weren’t for religion.” I completely understand and accept that there are men like Sohail who have neglected their families and found religion to be their only refuge from their torments. I even accept that religion can become a source of harm for one who has experienced such a dark side of human existence. What I find found difficult to accept was how Sohail’s PTSD and guilt get obscured in his turning to Islam. He goes from being a disturbingly anguished and complex character to a “good Muslim” who simply reinforces existing stereotypes about Muslim men being bearded, joyless, and stubbornly willful. The implication is that he becomes a neglectful father, distant brother, and absent son because religion—rather than war—made him psychologically unfit to the point of derangement.

This is a beautifully written book, no doubt. Unfortunately, however, I understood right away why it was met with so much praise: it gives Anam the license of the “exotic” writer to write a prettily tragic but inauthentic story that panders to a curiously warm receptiveness for male Muslim villains. And frankly, the title of the book is not just a misnomer. It’s an offense to those of us who inadvertently get represented through Sohail’s character.

On Reading Love, InshAllah

Title: Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: January 2012 

Genre: Romantic creative nonfiction 

(I made that up, but it sure beats “Women’s Studies”!)

Source: eGalley from editor

With the very conscious agenda to dismantle stereotypes and perceptions about Muslim women and love, Love InshAllah gives a glimpse into the richness, plurality, and self-actualization inherent within American Muslim women’s love lives. It holds the enormous potential to astonish both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, albeit for different reasons. This post is one Muslim woman’s reaction to reading about her fellow Muslimahs’ love lives in this remarkably candid, courageous, and soul-stirring collection.

Love, InshAllah, at first, brought me face-to-face with a glaring prejudice I have unconsciously created about what for me is fair game for love stories.

When Bollywood started to produce movies that involved more explicit love scenes, I remember my best friend, the least prejudiced person I know, saying “Aurgh, I don’t want to see that!” I chuckled: “So, what, it’s okay if white people do that onscreen?” She tried to explain what she felt: “No, but that’s brown people. That’s us!” Thanks to the media’s disproportionate portrayal of what particular acts should look like or whom they should involve, having intimacy is being acted out by people of “our kind” can be temporarily disorienting for even the least ideologically prudish Indo-Pakistani Muslim ladies like myself. 

I confess that, on some level, that’s what I was feeling when I read Love, InshAllah. It’s one thing to know, abstractly, that those stories are out there. Before reading this collection, I did know about gay Muslimahs, about the niqabis who have multiple sexual partners, about Muslim children having to live dual lives because they could not conform to their parents’ standards. But it’s one thing to have these faint blobs of abstraction floating around in one’s consciousness. And it’s quite another to be reading a succession of those stories by the women who own them. For reading such works constituted an experience I could never have readied myself for.

I, of course, mean that in the best way possible. 

Being a single person who’s been feeling a bit shortchanged in the love department lately, I did at times have to face the demon of loneliness while reading the stories. And being a Muslimah–which for me means having an inner universe that is shaped and conditioned by the moral tenets of the Islamic faith–means that the moral quandaries raised in some of those stories make reading them a gut-wrenchingly conflicted experience. Yet, ultimately, reading Love, InshAllah created a glowing, steadily increasing burn of recognition of myself in the stories as a whole.

The beauty of this collection lies in how pluralistic it is, and how any attempt to explain the experience of reading these stories will fail to do justice to this collection in its entirety. Therefore, I have decided attempt to group the stories based on my experience of reading them. These categories are far from perfect, but they help provide some insight into how varied the reading experience can get within the scope of such a collection. 

1. Deceptively Traditional Stories: These stories moved me because they revealed the beauty of what might, on the surface, seem to be unappealing ways to meet a significant other. Aisha Saeed’s “Leap of Faith” is a dream for any South Asian girl who’s had to go through strangeness of having her parents play matchmaker. “Otherwise Engaged” is an endearing account of Huda Al-Marashi’s yearning for a date with and formal proposal from the boy she was set up to marry. 

2. Too Good to Be True Stories: Stories that seemed too good to be true to the point of irrelevance. Although I recognize that they were a necessary part of the collection and are as true as the other stories, they’re not the kind of situations most Muslim women are lucky enough to be in. Ayesha Mattu’s “The Opening” and Angela Collins Telles’ “Love in the Andes” both involved meeting gorgeous non-Muslim men who ended up converting to Islam. Again, while I’m extremely happy for them and for all the women who have been so blessed, I’m too aware of the thornier issue of women who fall in love with good, worthy non-Muslim and are forced to choose between love and deen. 

3. Stories that are Not for the Faint-hearted: This collection of stories are better skipped by those who are squeamish, especially about Muslim women. In Tanzila Ahmed’s “Punk-Drunk Love,” Taqwacore sensibility intersects with the heartbreak and the transience of intense passion in a way that that seared my heart. Najva Sol’s “The First Time” recounts her coming to an understanding about her sexuality in a way that pulls no punches.    

4. The Real Stuff of Married Life Stories: These stories dealt with what married life (as far as I can tell) is really made up of. Melody Moezzi’s “Love in the Time of Biohazards” is a beautiful portrayal of true spousal devotion in the face of pancreatic complications. “Love at Third Sight” by Patricia M. G. Dunn provides much-needed lessons about what real love, in the context of marriage, is, and the kind of trials or uncertainty one might have to go through in order to actualize this form of love. 

5. Self-Defining Stories: Rather than relegate these stories to some overloaded form of a “miscellaneous” category, I wanted to highlight some gems in this collection, freestanding entities that made impressions I won’t easily forget:

  • Aida Rahim’s “Brain Meets Heart” is a story about how she and her daughter found the right husband and father (who incidentally is none other than Hijabman!) for themselves. I felt that this story brings out the much-needed voice of the smart, independent, admirable Muslim woman who doesn’t become any less of those things just because she happens to be a mother and a divorcee.
  • Nura Maznavi’s “Last Night on the Island” I found to be a wonderful story not just for its plot and narration, but because it functions as a portal into a grander narrative about being single. To see this included in a collection of love stories was something I had not expected, and this act of inclusion deeply moved me. 
  • “Sex by Any Other Name” is a wonderfully uncomfortable read that explores virginity, perceived ownership of such a virtue, and the complications and anxiety that result when these phenomena are continuously confronted.
  • Asiila Imani’s story “Three” traces the usual journey of love towards an unusual and controversial form: polygny. Given that a considerable number of Muslim women hold Imani’s perspective and have had experiences similar to hers, I was especially glad to see the inclusion of such a voice in this collection.
  • Suzanne Syeda Shah’s “Kala Love” is a raw, powerful account of complex family relationships, a pronounced clash between first and second-generation immigrants, the trauma of assault, and redemption through faith and sex. Because there was not only redemption, but redemption through a worthy man, I feel that this story epitomizes what–to me–is the real stuff of romance stories. 

When I look back at the climate that surrounded my education on love and sex, I am bemused by the skewed ways that women of my religious and cultural background learn about these things: the way we would devour romance novels, the ridiculous myths about female anatomy that would circulate the unmarried girls’ side in dinner parties, the simplistically treated assumption that one transforms from being ‘innocent’ to being someone who knows of these matters over the course of a wedding night. To realize that I made the transition from that background to being part of a Love, InshAllah post-publication world gives me a great deal of hope and self-affirmation. It is now, by virtue of this book, becoming a world I want to raise my daughter in.

At first I wasn’t sure if should put myself through reading this book, thinking that it would only make me confront the demon of emotional loneliness. And to an extent, it did. Amazingly enough, however, by the time I reached the end, it had done the opposite. It instilled me with a sense of hope and empowerment I couldn’t have gained in any other way. Although a little disorienting at first, it eventually lead me to breathing sigh after sigh of relief, knowing that my story–be it that of failed love, triumphant love, or singlehood–is part of a narrative that can never be conveyed simplistically, a narrative whose beauty comes from the plurality of experience and candidness about the places they come from.

This collection may be subtitled, “the secret love lives of American Muslim women,” but this book brings those lives out in the open, making them secret no more. I applaud its honesty and its celebration of female sexuality from within the Muslim universe. And I hope it paves the way for more such works about Muslim women in other places and countries and other conceptions of intimacies, starting, perhaps, with Canadian Muslim women.