Looking for Love and Finding Awkwardness at ISNA

By Obaid H. Siddiqui

*Names have been withheld to protect the innocent and as to not embarrass the guilty.

The 49th annual convention hosted by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Washington, D.C. on Labor Day weekend was a success. It was a full of spiritually- and politically-nourishing lectures; a bazaar full of clothing, jewelry, artwork and Islamic literature and information; and an atmosphere of camaraderie. At least that’s what it was like if you were married or with family.

If you were one of the hundreds of single Muslims at the convention, it was a weekend-long race and competition to accumulate as many new dating/marriage options as possible. Because let’s face the truth – under the guise of religious learning, single Muslims converge on the largest national annual Islamic conference for one reason only: to meet that Muslim someone.

For this crowd, arrangement through parents is too old school and openly dating is too new school. The internet hasn’t worked – is anyone really still on Naseeb.com?  So, the next best thing is  the annual ISNA convention.

The objective of this ravenous love-seeking horde is so obvious now that the nights have been deemed “Club ISNA.” (A club scene developing at the largest Muslim conference in the country is the definition of ironic.) When you get a group of single Muslim men and women in their 20’s and 30’s together in one city, the ISNA convention serves simply as a social catalyst for finding a partner — or at least a few more Facebook friends, preferably of the opposite sex.

Sure, major thinkers, spiritual stalwarts, and community leaders like Tariq Ramadan, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, and Imam Siraj Wahhaj were there giving lectures, but most of us have been hearing speeches from these luminaries since we were 18. And, they haven’t helped us with the one thing we care the most about – getting hitched.

So instead of a weekend full of religious awakening and intellectual pursuits, the ISNA convention becomes three days of awkwardness, busted expectations, and ruined lungs from way too much sheesha smoke. For those on the prowl, there were a handful of approaches one could take to find that prized partner. Unfortunately, those options all rank high on SAMS — Socially Awkward Muslim Scale. The SAMS ranks experiences on a scale of 1 through 10, with 10 being the ultimate awkward Muslim situation – like meeting your spouse for the first time on your wedding night.

Yes, that does happen.

Speed Marriage Interviews, a.k.a. The Matrimonials (SAMS Rank: 7.5)

The Matrimonials have been the bane of the single Muslim’s existence for a couple of decades now. In theory it’s a great idea. Get a group of single Muslims into one room, all with the intention of meeting each other for the sake of marriage, and allow them to talk to each other. Yet the theory doesn’t account for two things: anxiety and awkwardness.

The event is set up like speed dating: You have three minutes to talk to the person in front of you, and then you go to the next one. In those three minutes you have to ask yourself:

a) Am I attracted to this person?

b) Is this person attracted to me?

c) What is he/she interested in?

d) Am I presenting my best self?

e) Am I being funny?

f) Do I seem sincere?

g) Where will we have the kebabs catered from at our wedding?

That’s a lot of pressure. Then you have to do it again. And again.  And again. Like about 40 times.

Despite this obvious flaw in the design, the place is packed with eligible women. In fact, the registration for women at the matrimonial event was closed a couple weeks prior to ISNA due to too many female attendees. However, guys could roll up a few minutes before the event and get in. (Goes to show who is really taking this seriously.) Since most guys don’t go to this event, the ones that do tend not to be the most outgoing, social or … normal.

A good male friend of mine – dressed to impress with monogrammed cuffs, cufflinks, and, let’s say, extraordinarily tailored pants — was excited when he arrived. Not because the women were amazing, but because the guys there were awkwardly unsocial, thereby making him seem extra cool, according to him. And it apparently worked. The lack of any meaningful competition gave him the advantage; he left the event with a host of new friends and contacts.

However, the story wasn’t the same for a female friend of mine — let’s call her KD. KD is beautiful, sophisticated, accomplished and a good conversationalist. Yet, she couldn’t say the same about the men in the room. One suitor, upon realizing her profession was medicine with a specialty in kidneys, droned on about his recent kidney surgery. He even drew a crude diagram of his kidneys. Remember, there is only three minutes to find out about each other — and this guy spent that time doodling out his organs. She considered charging him for the consultation, but figured it would be best to get away from him as soon as possible.

Another man spent the three minutes staring at KD without blinking. It wasn’t a staring contest, but it did devolve into an awkward contest. (Sure, she’s attractive, but c’mon bro, wet your eyes a bit with your eyelids.)  Apparently, some of the women even took to texting each other to complain about the weak selection. Sorry, ladies. The supposed cool guys didn’t have time for the charade of the matrimonial event. They were too busy getting dolled up for the other charade, Club ISNA.

The Hotel Lobby, a.k.a. Club ISNA (SAMS Rank: 6)

In the overly marbled lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C., hundreds of single Muslims gathered each night of the convention until the early morning to “make the rounds.” The rounds refer to the circumambulation most people made around the middle of the lobby — a veritable tawaf of checking people out.

Everyone’s head was on a bobble — constantly swaying left to right even while engaged in conversation. Sure, you may already be talking to a cool, attractive person, but, like an obese, pre-diabetic kid in a free candy store, you can’t stop scanning the whole room. Therefore no one actually holds a meaningful conversation. People are looking around for friends, other attractive people they can possibly approach and then ignore, and even ex’s from whom to duck and hide.

Nothing can truly describe the lobby scene for someone who has never witnessed it. Imagine a club, with no music, no dancing, and no drinks, full of people who have no idea how to approach someone of the opposite sex — appropriately or not. The recirculated air pumped the aromatic mélange of cologne, perfume, and body odor back into the festering hive of hormones that is the lobby scene.

Some women could only stand being ignored for so long before they decided to leave. Some men never stopped circling the center of the lobby. (I imagine there are a couple of guys still there right now holding on to hope that their cutie is one tawaf away.)  Those who couldn’t stand the club scene any longer made their way to the after party.

The After Party, a.k.a. Sheesha Nightcap (SAMS Rank: 3)

The post lobby/club scene usually takes place at a local hookah lounge – the bar for Muslims. This is where friends would retreat and discuss the previous club scene under a haze of sweet smelling carcinogens. Places like Darna, Zenobia, Prince, Shisha Palace, and Tarbouch were overrun with brown folk for the weekend — more so than usual. Tarbouch — or the ‘Bouch (I think I’m the only one who calls it that) — was the location of choice because it closed at 4 a.m. on weekends. Thus, it was overflowing with Club ISNA goers discussing the latest gossip and holding out hope to make that one last move on the cutie they had been eyeing all night.

Long lines of people queued up in the parking lot, waiting for their turn to sit in the same parking lot in which they were standing. I’ve heard many things about that place from a lot of DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) folks, and maybe I had too high of expectations, but I was imagining something vastly different. I assumed it would be a swanky lounge with plush chairs, cool lighting, and a hip scene. Instead, I found a bunch of crappy metal chairs sprawled across a pawn shop’s slightly slanted parking lot — if you leaned too far back in your chair, you would’ve fallen over. Classy.

(For the record, when it comes to hookah spots, Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens has it on lock. And that’s hard for a Philly boy like me to admit.)

By the time one made it over to a hookah lounge, however, everyone was tired – exhausted from the day’s events, which really only involved brunch, a walk through the ISNA convention bazaar, then conversing about and planning for the upcoming night. Ironically enough, the place where people go to unwind and decompress from the endless hunting and gathering on display at the oddly faux-club scene of the lobby, is one of the better places to make a move. Yet, everyone crowds around their own group of friends, as they just want to get their “halal buzz” on from the sheesha, quietly scope the others who arrive later, and promise themselves they’ll do better the next night.

Unfortunately, that never happens. And the weekend is over. So goes the high expectations that everyone has for trying to meet someone in the most socially forced situations possible.

What to do?

What makes this so unfortunate is that there are some really good single men and women out there. But most of us either don’t know how to approach each other, or are so infatuated with the various options being served up on a platter for us, that we don’t know how to focus our attention on a single deserving person.

My advice? (Yes, I am aware that I was at Club ISNA awkwardly making social tawaf myself.) Ladies: You are awesome. Beautiful. Intelligent. Accomplished. But you don’t let us fellas see that. When in the club scene, you hang with five of your female friends with your backs to everyone else — not returning eye contact nor showcasing a hint of that friendly smile that says “Yes, I would like for you to talk to me.”

Put away your iPhone .Really, you need to be on Facebook here? This is the real life, FB!! Find ONE good friend of yours to hang out with, maximum two, and stop emitting a force field of judgment, unapproachability, and lack of interest. Drop the poker face and give out a few simple signals, like extended eye contact, a slight smile and ease of conversation. Stop putting so much stress on yourselves and be normal and open.

Fellas: Stop being douchebags. Most of you have no experience talking to women. Just admit it. You can try to replicate scenes from the movies you’ve watched or think you’re as cool and wanted as whatever crappy pop artist you have in your iPod that you wish to emulate. But you’re not. You’re awkward in your own way. You think showing no interest is cool. You think being upfront and friendly kills your swag.

You think that just because that one chick in the corner didn’t give you the “talk to me” smile, that all of the women in the room are jerks. Get over yourself. Face it: You just can’t be that in to you. Drop the strutting and the wannabe Zoolander faces. Drop the stupid one-line game that only works on drunken non-Muslim women. Smile. Take the initiative. Approach. Be friendly and inquisitive. If you don’t get the response you want, assume that the lady in front of you may be shy and new at this too. If she still doesn’t give you the interaction you’re looking for, then excuse yourself and move on.

Rejection is what makes the one you finally get so worthwhile. Don’t let your fragile ego hinge solely on a woman’s reaction to your extra-medium shirt, over-gelled hair and designer shoes.

Everyone, let’s just be real and honest. We all want to meet someone. Let’s admit it and stop trying to run the weird, Muslim game. It makes it awkward for all of us. The one guy I know who worked the heck out of the lobby scene is one of the nicest guys I’ve met. He’s sincere, proactive and charming — and women responded well to him. If more of us guys could be like him, there would be a whole lot fewer single Muslims and we could all stop forcing ourselves to act like Club ISNA is a good idea.

Obaid H. Siddiqui is a writer and journalist based in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the anthology “All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim.” First image courtesy of www.zazzle.com. Second image courtesy of www.quickmeme.com.

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