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An awkward teenager tries to figure out if a girl likes him, learns how to kiss and works up the courage to ask her to the prom — and then figures out how to go without his conservative parents knowing.
A young man who knows he's gay tells his family, only to be cruelly rejected by them.
A man realizes he's the jerk who didn't call back the woman, even though they both clearly liked each other.
These sound like stories we know, but there's a twist: they are all Muslim American men. Their stories are among the 22 collected in a new book, "Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy" (excerpt below).
The book is a follow-up to the 2012 collection, "Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women."
Both books were edited by writer and international development consultant Ayesha Mattu and attorney and writer Nura Maznavi. Mattu joins Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the stories of these American Muslim men.
Note: This excerpt contains language and content that some readers may find offensive.
Edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi
By Sam Pierstorff
Go ahead. Ask me if I am Muslim. It's true, I am. I’m white, Orange County, MTV-reality-show white. Beastie Boys circa 1986 white. The skater boy Avril Lavigne sang about white. Now, if you ask me how I came to be Muslim, I will need more time—enough time to tell you the long story about a Syrian girl from Aleppo who met a Kentucky redneck in the heart of Tennessee. Don't ask me how they got there.
Sure, he was a Korean War veteran, an English Literature scholar, and a bit of an alcoholic, and she was Muslim, not entirely fluent in English, and wide-eyed with America's freedom—but the heart wants what the heart wants, right?
And he was sympathetic to Islam, embracing the simplicity of one true God, instead of wrestling with the complexity of a trinity or a son of God or any other faith-based-so-easily-explained derivation of God's being. And she was sympathetic to his vices--nothing a faithful wife couldn't cure, she thought. Of course, there were challenges—affairs, abuse, alcoholism—all of which were back-burnered when their two sons came along.
The first-born was named by my mother—a Muslim name—Ahmed. There would be no debate about that. He would become a treasure, a spiritual son, blessed the moment Al-Fatiha was whispered into his ear at birth. The second born, out of fairness and compromise, was named by my father—an Anglo name, Samuel Johnson, after the 18th century English critic and writer, who he had studied. That's me. I would follow a more crooked path, spend more time outdoors than in, blessed at birth by my father's whiskey breath instead of his prayers.
By 5th grade, the back burner could no longer contain the flames of my parents' marital problems. They split up. Our home went up in smoke. Poof. Gone. My father moved an hour away, westward toward the ocean, Costa Mesa, California while my mother tried her best to raise two boys alone in the desert of Riverside County with all of the might left in her four-foot olive frame and Arabic accent. She jarred my brother and I awake for dawn prayers and chauffeured us to the mosque on Fridays in her seatbelt-less 1962 Studebaker while she tied her hijab in the rearview mirror and asked my brother to steer. Above all else, she taught us the five essential pillars of Islam: 1) believe in Allah and his final prophet, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him); 2) pray five times a day; 3) don't look at girls; 4) don't speak to girls; 5) don't think about girls.
Girls, more than alcohol and pork, were haram. Hell was the tip of my mother's wooden spoon as she chased me around when girls called the house, wanting to know why girls had my number. She yelled about religion and temptation and how kissing spread disease and French kissing made babies. God's anti-girlfriend stance was way too unfair and exceedingly complicated. But my first crush was simple and powerful: Amy McKiernan. Every day I watched her on the playground, the sun in her blonde curls, her perfect pink-lipped smile. My heart was bursting every time Amy McKiernan pranced across the blacktop. My heart was not bursting with love for a deity that I could not see or touch or smell. Amy smelled like citrus, like rose petals, like love. One day after school, Amy and I circled behind the school's baseball dugout and nuzzled against each other. Her lips met mine. It was quick. Innocent. For a moment, I thought it would conjure the devil, but nothing happened. Just a spark that set fire to my heart. It felt like a tiny piece of heaven.
But even though I could not see or touch or smell God, I could feel Him. The fear of Him, the weight of Him, the guilt of Him. My mother had taught me well. And that kept me from kissing Amy ever again, holding her hand, or even talking to her after that first kiss.
In middle school, a bully named Hector called everyone a "jack-off." I didn't know what he meant when he said, "Fuck you, Sammy, you little jack-off." Then he made a fist and beat the air between his legs with an invisible hammer. I had no idea what he was doing. I was twelve, barely able to comb my hair without my brother helping me mousse down the cowlicks in the back. My brother was always so generous—trading shirts when mine fit like a potato sack, helping me define cool words like "disembowel" and "castration." He knew it all—a nose-in-a-book, glasses-wearing, king-of-all-nerds reader with an IQ the size of Jupiter and a penchant for pleasing Mom. He could read Arabic too—slowly, right to left, one swooping letter at a time. They sat together after prayer, hummed the thick vowels of each surah. But not me. I was quick to launch myself outside as soon as possible. There was an alley behind our apartment complex with a dumpster. Inside were dirty magazines, old egg-stained Playboys and newspapers that advertised strip clubs and phone sex numbers with images of naked girls with red stars on their nipples. That was my first exposure to pornography—long before the Internet. The torn pages of diaper-stained magazines and newspaper ads were my porn sites; the dumpster was my Google search engine. Pretty soon I figured out Hector's little move. Too soon, perhaps. All the time, perhaps. I locked myself in the bathroom, turned the faucet on high, and hammered until I thought I broke it. But I didn't. This was puberty, coming too early.
In high school, my mom loosened up slightly. She didn't want to risk losing us, and work kept her out of the house for ten hours a day, so if she wanted to stay connected to us she had to become our friend more than our parent or we'd never speak again. Besides, we were nearly men, so what choice did she have? We were growing facial hair, frosting our armpits with deodorant, and sprouting muscles up and down our bodies, especially mine thanks to a strict regimen of push-ups after prayer. (Muslim workout tip: 20 push-ups after each salat = 100 push-ups per day). My brother stayed as skinny as Olive Oyl, same ponytail too. While my mother let my brother get away with his long, curly hair, she let me get away with having a few girlfriends. There were more, of course, than she knew.
With these girls, I learned the fine art of dry humping, jean-on-jean friction so hard and fast I worried we might make a fire between our rubbing thighs. I knew intellectually that I was breaking countless rules of pious Muslim behavior by giving into my lusts. But it was almost like a game I played with God, a game of chicken, a dare. How far could I walk toward the edge of the cliff without falling? I was young and horny enough to dip my toes past the edge, but strong enough to avoid falling from grace and permanently injuring myself. That was the game of balance I played. And I was winning. I never unbuckled or cut the ropes that tethered me to God. Maybe I loosened them a little, but I never cut them completely.
The fear of sex that my mother introduced into our young Muslim minds stuck with me throughout most of my life. Allah seemed pretty forgiving according to the khutbahs I had heard, but in our house, sex was unforgivable—a one-way ticket to hell—and I didn't want to board that plane. Looking back, fear and guilt may have saved me from drowning in a world of high school sex and all the side effects that came with it. But there were still side effects, and that is where an American dad can help.
It had been months since we had last spoken, but I needed advice.
"Hey, dad. It's Sam."
"Howdy, Chief. How's your momma?"
"How 'bout you?"
"My balls are killing me."
"What do you mean?"
"It feels like I got kicked in the nuts. Everything down there hurts. My stomach is sore, too. I can hardly stand up."
"Sam, I am gonna ask you something, and you have to be honest with me. And don't worry, I won't tell your mother."
"Have you been getting a little hot and heavy with your girlfriend?"
"Did you go all the way?"
"No!" I shouted.
"Well then, there's your problem."
"You're backed up. Ever shake a soda pop bottle with the cap on? It wants to burst. Don't it?"
"Right now, that soda bottle is your dick. It's gonna take a while to settle down. If it doesn't stop hurting in an hour, go rub it out."
I knew what he meant. He understood male plumbing. I had a genital clog and two options to fix it: be patient or beat off. This was a moment when I should have prayed—dropped two raka'at to ask Allah for forgiveness and sabr . Minutes later, I relieved myself and took a long nap afterwards. I would learn in books that I had experienced a male medical condition commonly known as "blue balls" - Epididymal Hypertension or vasocongestion. Unlike unicorns and leprechauns, blue balls are very real and very painful.
In college, among my Muslim male friends, which, alhumdulillah, I had plenty of at Long Beach State University, no one talked about masturbation or virginity. We all just assumed they both existed in our lives. The running joke was that every Muslim male was Hanafi until he got married because the Hanafi school made masturbation permissible, but only to prevent zina or to release sexual tension (not just desire). Otherwise, it was forbidden. I never asked, but I am pretty sure my male Muslim friends released a lot of sexual "tension" in college. I read somewhere that 99% of men do it, and the other 1% lie about it. We were the 1%. Muslim men, especially growing up in the United States of pornography and booty shorts, are not immune. Guilt-ridden? Yes. Overflowing with regret and shame? Perhaps. Full of prayers for greater strength in the face of temptation? Every Jumma. But definitely not immune.
Marriage, I used to say, was the cure. Actually, I may have subconsciously been paraphrasing the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) who said to young people, "Whoever among you can support a wife should marry, for that is more modest for the gaze and safer for your private parts" (quoted in Sahih Bukhari). Marriage is a life raft wherein one's libido can float along safely as it sails down a choppy river of uniquely American hyper-sexuality. The point is that marriage can protect a young man from having sex with lots and lots of women.
"Think about it, amigos," I would say to my college buddies. "What great sin do we commit that won't be cured by marriage? We're actually pretty good Muslims when you think about it. We don't drink or snort cocaine. We don't kill people or steal cars. We don't blow shit up, contrary to the stereotype. We help old ladies across the street. We donate food to homeless shelters and send money overseas to Palestine and Afghanistan to help build schools."
"Yeah," Rashid interjected, "I helped a neighbor move her couch up two flights of stairs yesterday."
"Remember when that guy's Buick broke down on Pine Avenue and we pushed him out of the street so he wouldn't get hit?" Mohammed added.
We reminisced. There was no shortage of good deeds among us. We were diligent about Friday prayers, and fasting, and salat five times a day (or at least four— Fajr was tough).
"With this one tiny exception of lust and our obsession with girls, we're pretty good guys, right?" I pronounced.
"Dude, you're droppin' knowledge, mashallah."
Everyone started puffing up with a sense of confidence that quietly slipped away every time an overly bearded fellow or scowling auntie at the mosque insinuated with their eyes that we were girl-crazy.
"Now we just need to find ourselves some wives."
Graduate school was on the horizon. I chose to stay at Long Beach State University to complete a Master's degree in English because they offered me a class to teach. I was older, more mature. My libido was tamer than it had been as a teenager, and my heart was more open to real love, the kind that is sustainable and permanent. At Jumma prayers, I found myself drifting, my eyes falling upon little boys in thobes dragging toy cars across the prayer carpets or infants asleep in their fathers’ arms as the fathers continued to pray, careful not to wake the baby. I wanted a family. The next stage of life was calling out to me. I could sense the seismic shift in my brain, moving from desiring lust to wanting love—real and life-long.
By my second year of grad school, I was working full-time at the university, teaching composition courses and coordinating educational programs for inner-city youth. I made a decent wage for a 24-year-old kid and owned a new black Toyota pickup. What girl wouldn't want to marry me? That's when my quest began.
There were rumblings within my inner circle of mostly Indian-American Muslim friends about a girl named Ruhi. She was Indian-American, too. Some said we should meet. We'd be perfect for each other, they'd say.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because she's short like you!"
"Is that the only reason?"
"She's also cute. She's funny. She likes to read."
No one mentioned faith, hers or mine. The irony of Muslim dating (especially in college) is that very few people mention Islam. That's the easy part: believe, pray, fast, donate, Hajj. If you're both Muslim, it's really a matter of attraction and compatibility— and a short, cute, funny, reader of books sounded divine.
I had never dated any Indian-American girls, but in college I was a cowboy surrounded by Indians. My best male friends were Indian-American; their girlfriends were too. At the mosques in southern California, there were more dupattas than hijabs, more biryani served at iftar dinner than kibbee. The comfort of my Arab-White palette (i.e. meatloaf and hummus) was left in the wake as I dined on tandoori chicken and naan. My tastes had changed. Drastically. I began to marvel at the thick black, glimmering hair of Indian girls, their big eyes glazed with green eye shadow, gold bangles clinking up and down their forearms. All the white girls I'd ever crushed on suddenly became pale ghosts rising from my memory and disappearing into an exotic, marigold sky.
And then I saw her on campus by a dandelion-shaped fountain. She was with some girls I knew. But Ruhi was different. Blue eye shadow, blue jeans, flip-flops. A little shorter than the rest and way more casual—a blend between a laidback surfer and Aishwarya Rai.
"Hey, Sam," a girl with a gold nose ring shouted. "This is my friend, Ruhi."
Ruhi looked up. Our eyes met. I think I first noticed the perfect heart-shaped dip in the center of her upper lip, right below her nose, or was it her eyes? Honey-colored, almond shaped. She smiled. I read deeply into that smile. While some have seen their whole lives flash before their eyes, I could see her life flashing before my eyes. I saw kindness and generosity. I saw adversity and strength. I saw a pair of lips prone to giggling, and I knew I could make her laugh. I saw, above all else, familiarity. If a face could be described as non-judgmental, this was it—beautiful and bright with love and acceptance. I wanted her all to myself.
I finally found my voice.
"Oh, you're Ruhi?"
Me: "We need to talk."
Her: "We do?"
Me: "Yes, we definitely do."
I didn't know what I needed to talk to her about, but I knew immediately that I needed to spend time with her. She was the one. It was that simple. Attractive. Muslim. A little shorter than I was, which was rare. Perfect. Now all I needed was to talk to her to work out the details of our wedding. I was in a hurry. My "private parts" would not be safe for very much longer.
Courting Ruhi was not unlike most young Muslim courtships in America. You tell your mother that you're going to school to study, and then you meet your boyfriend/girlfriend at a coffee shop or at the movies or at a bookstore. On our first date, we tried to keep it halal. We knew the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had said, "Whenever a man is alone with a woman, the devil makes a third," so we brought along a skinny business major named Rashid. He was technically not a wali, but he was like a brother to us both, so that had to count for something.
We went to BJ's restaurant in downtown Long Beach and ate deep-dish pizza. Rashid and I sat on one side of the booth while Ruhi sat in the center of the other. She was dressed modestly, a purple sweater, thin and V-necked, with a white top underneath—silver hoops swinging from her earlobes. Her eye shadow was dusted with specks of silver glitter, or maybe I am remembering incorrectly. Maybe she was sparkling.
The steaming pan of pizza rested atop our table. Everyone stared at the last thick slice, but no one wanted to appear greedy. Eventually Rashid, with his blessed metabolism, ate it, and through greasy bites—cheese dangling from his lips—broke the awkward silence that had settled over our table.
"So are you guys gonna get married or what?"
In the minds of most Muslims, it is that easy. Find a Muslim girl. Get married. Simple. No personality tests, common tastes in music, complicated feelings, long talks about future goals. "Love" is a manufactured emotion designed by the West to fall in and out of rather than a simple choice. Do it or don't. Period.
"Your kid's skin will look like coffee with too much cream," Rashid teased. In his mind, the wedding was over and we had become parents before the Pizookie had been served for dessert.
Rashid became a fixture in our dating lives, the tagalong kid we couldn't get rid of. For weeks we dated (all three of us) and saw each other on campus, but Ruhi and I needed to be alone. We had heard of a place called The Next Level, and we both decided it was time to take our relationship there without an audience.
Less than a month after we'd met, Ruhi's parents left for Tanzania where they were born and raised. They would be there for three weeks. At 19-years-old, Ruhi was old enough to be left behind to finish her semester of college without disruption despite her mother pleading otherwise: "A Muslim girl should not be alone in the house. It is not safe. What if someone finds out she is here by herself?"
Her father reminded her mother that Ruhi was a big girl. There was money in an envelope, gas in the car, relatives nearby. She would be fine. After all, this was not the savannah of Africa. No lion was lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce.
I was no predator, but this was a chance I wasn't willing to pass up. It was 7:45 p.m., Saturday night, when I began my drive down the 405 freeway to Redondo Beach to meet Ruhi alone for the first time. This was going to be my first "real" Rashid-less date with the girl I was beginning to love. Until now, our only time alone had been phone conversations lasting deep into the heart of the night. We traded books and poems, shared stories about growing up. Neither of us had had it easy, but we both had each other to look forward to now. My stomach boomed with anxiety. I played Metallica loudly in the car and yelled along with James Hetfield the whole way there.
My index finger shook above the doorbell to her house. Then she emerged, framed in the doorway, backlit by lamps with severed gazelle hooves for bases. She invited me inside. I was in a different world. On the shelves, Qurans everywhere, a tapestry of Mecca near the door, a million white dots swirling around the Ka'ba. On the opposite wall, a zebra skin splayed out like it had just been skinned. One false move, I thought, and that might be my skin up there if her dad ever caught me in his house . . . with his daughter . . . alone.
"Want some chai?" Ruhi asked.
She'd already made some, a pot of black tea and milk brewed thick with cardamom and cloves. She added sugar and served it to me with a cookie on the side—a spongy orange golf ball that she called laddu.
I stirred my chai, blowing into the cup to cool it down.
"Do you think our kids will have skin this color?" I asked.
She didn't look pleased by my query. Too soon, I thought, too soon. Suddenly, there was a knock at the front door. I leapt off my stool, her eyes wide as dinner plates. And then a louder knock. With a family of a thousand cousins and a hundred aunts, many of whom lived in the area, the chances were pretty good that a relative was at the door.
"Hide in my room! Hurry!" Ruhi yanked me into her bedroom, pushed me into the closet, then pulled me out just as fast.
"Outside! Go out the French doors. Hide in the backyard!"
I hurdled over her bed, burst through the double doors into her backyard, and pinned myself against a tree and the stucco wall behind her house. I was shaking. My belly was full of bullet holes and scalding hot chai was leaking out. I wasn't afraid of God. I was afraid of whomever was at the door.
"Hey girl, what are you all dressed up for? Going out?"
It was her cousin, an NBA-tall, slightly gangster-looking guy named Maqbul, I would later learn. He was sent by an auntie. "Trustworthy" is not a word often associated with a young, single, beautiful, Indian-Muslim girl in the U.S.. At least not in Urdu. So a family henchman had been sent over to check on Ruhi.
"I'm not going anywhere. I am staying home."
Through the gap in the drapes, I could see Ruhi and the lanky shadow of Maqbul. It was clear that she was trying to keep him at the front door, out of view of our two cups of half-drunk chai in the kitchen like spilled blood at a crime scene. She had one hand pressed against his chest, her tricep flexing as she pushed him away.
"Get out of here, Maq. I need to take a shower and go to bed."
Good excuse, I thought. He persisted, but Ruhi was strong. He never crossed the threshold. She closed the door behind him, locked it, and came to fetch me from the yard.
"He's gone. You can come in."
"I think I better get going. That was too close," I said, still shaking like an old man with Parkinson's.
That was the end of our first and only date. We were too scared to go out in public. We'd be seen. We'd be caught. We'd be judged. I had to do this the right way or not all.
Two months went by. Two months of long letters, coffee on campus, and poetry readings. Ruhi's friends would drag her to my events to hear me read poems, and she would stand in the back blushing when a line about love was clearly aimed at her. She was my muse, and I wanted to hold on to her forever.
It was Sunday, blissfully warm near her home in Redondo Beach. That's where I met her parents in person. I brought my own mother along. My brother, too. We all sat in the parlor, both families, beneath that splayed zebra skin on the wall. It was awkward to be there again—even though I was invited this time.
I proposed. Officially. Halal style. I told her parents how much I loved their daughter, how I would care for her better than I cared for myself, how nothing in this world meant more to me than she did. Everyone was in tears. Mostly me and Ruhi though. We were softies. We had found each other in a peculiar world, and we had nothing left to hide.
Six months later, we married and moved from southern California to Modesto where I landed a full-time, tenure-track teaching position at Modesto Junior College. Once there, we began to create our own world where, for the past twelve years, we have lived and laughed and cried a whole lot more—like when our first son was born and had to spend a week in the NICU; or when our daughter was born, who Ruhi wanted so desperately to be a girl; or when our littlest came out, fired up and pumping his tiny fists. All with skin like coffee with too much cream. All beautiful, alhamdulillah.
Looking back, I regret never having that first "real" date. So some nights, Ruhi and I turn our suburban kitchen into a dance floor. Instead of a strobe light, our oldest son stands on a chair and flicks the light switch on and off. Our daughter picks songs on an iPad as our little guy hops around like a bunny rabbit. But at least admission is free, and our club never closes, and our song never stops playing.
Excerpted from the book SALAAM, LOVE edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press. All rights reserved.
This story aired on April 8, 2014.
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