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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  • irfan zayyed

    lol thats why that girl started that website http://www.whowantsomarryme.com

  • Himmad Khan

    I have never had the chance to attend an ISNA convention yet, but your article has got me looking forward to it next year.

    Great read though, will pass it on.

  • Uzma Siddiqui

    asak,i enjoyed your article,thinking of attending the next event in Chicago for my daughter,any words of wisdom for my daughter

  • Mo Khimji

    I attended the ISNA matrimonial event yesterday (my first time) and herewith is my experience as follows:

    - There were a lot of singletons there from different backgrounds (Pakistani, Indian, Arab etc).

    - Many of the women were absolutely stunning.

    Organisation – well I give ISNA marks for effort but it could have been a little more organised well in advance. I don’t think its the ideal way to meet someone or get anywhere in 3 minutes of 1 hour of social time.

    Parents – I felt so sorry for the parents that were there and their anxiety/worry was so visible on their faces that some of them were ageing on the spot from it because of how badly they wanted to see their daughters married.

    The women themselves – if people think I sound biased then tough luck but what I’m going to say is the truth; despite chatting to guys the women were totally stuck up an unapproachable and you could see the resentment on their faces when a guy approached them.

    The women’s expectations were from Jupiter and I was questioning the whole time if they wanted an actual “husband” or leader in a relationship because it seemed more so that they wanted pooches on a leash or a legal form of a boyfriend. If women want to start that whole sexism and equality rubbish argument with me on men and leadership then here’s my answer: why did Allah choose a man to be a Prophet and men before that Prophet?

    I was trying to be very perceptive of the girls around me and I did not hear one girl mention that she wanted a practicing Muslim or was a practicing Muslim herself. It was as though religion didn’t matter. What I heard was that “religion should not be forced” (which is fair yes) but let’s face it WE ARE MUSLIMS and practice is part of our identity unless we’re Muslims by convenience. It was hypocritical hearing the women say they like having fun in a halal Islamic way when they say they don’t pray or practice. The two go hand in hand in their own right!

    When I asked the women what kind of husband they wanted the answer I got was “I want an awesome guy” (what the hell is an awesome guy? I mean every individual is awesome in their own way!) or “I want someone to have fun with” (also fair but isn’t that a given in marriage and the main priority to build a relationship and a family/home?) or from the doctor women (full credit to them for their achievements I heard “I want a doctor guy because we’d have something in common” (yeah sure you’d talk about medicine all day or rotations) or “our hours would be the same” (you’d never see each other!) or from a lawyer I met whom I asked what she liked to do for fun she said “I don’t have time for fun because I’m busy with my career” (if you wanted a career why the hell do you want to get married?) and when I asked her how does she expect to give time to a relationship /family/home if she wanted a career she said “marriage and law are mutually exclusive” (which gobsmacked me and for a moment I thought she’d sue me for asking that question!).

    I also heard things like “I want a guy who is independent and doesn’t want his parents to live with him” (hello where do we put our parents? In a dustbin? Who will look after them when they age?) or “I don’t want a guy to ask his parents for money” (I’m a self-made millionaire and still ask my parents for money for simple things such as fuel or shower gel or bread because it keeps me humble!) or “I want us to have our own lives and privacy” (my parents aren’t going to come into the bedroom when we’re being intimate or in our bedrooms in general because they’d respect our space – what the hell kind of expectation is that?).

    One of the icings on the cake of comment was a doctor girl who said to me “I’d rather be married to a doctor because I don’t think other guys would be able to make that kind of money like I do as a doctor” (financial security is one thing but being condescending towards other people’s earning levels is insulting).

    Last but not least, when a woman has warmth in her face it is visible. When a real genuine woman wants a guy to talk to her she will give him that subtle eye contact of “please come over and talk to me” but what I saw at the event were ice queens with a cold stare on their faces and gave off an aura of being so unapproachable.

    With this kind of attitude towards life/relationships and being so unapproachable, it is no wonder there were so many single women at the event. No decent guy or guy with his priorities right would even want to deal with any one of them because they are not fit for marriage or to be wives.

    I personally feel sorry for the parents who have to endure seeing their daughters still sitting single because of this attitude. I credit the parents (and the women) for achieving all the high level of education/vocations. I also blame the parents for failing to realise that in the process of getting their daughters educated, they forgot to instil true marital values and priorities in them…

    At this rate the number of single Muslim women will continue to multiply or marry outside our religion/culture and the next generation will pay the price for not having any identity (except a name tag as a Muslim) and will be truly lost because these women (if they do get married and become mothers) do not have the priority or vision to guide as they are too much into themselves…

    • Ayesha Ansari

      mo. salaam. don’t take offense but you seem to be blaming the girls that you did not connect with someone. you speak of this ‘attitude’. think about where that comes from. the men in that room, and apparently yourself, are looking for beautiful, thin, educated, practicing muslims… who give you eye contact for you to speak with them. really? and what then? give you the green light to have parents speak so you can live happily ever after. be realistic and stop reading people’s minds.
      you make comment about the prophet pbuh. think about the prophet’s example to men: he gave examples of all the different types of women to marry: older, more successful, warriors, younger, divorced, widowed, etc. ask yourself, would you consider anyone other than younger than you and never married…what if she had kids?? i didn’t think so. so why is that different than a doctor wanting to marry a doctor? the fact is, there is a similar mind set. there is a similar background and struggle that both can identify. it’s a known entity. what’s wrong with wanting financial security from a known entity??? if you think that’s shallow, how is that different than men wanting the superficial unrealistic qualities i described? if you know anything about becoming a doctor it takes extreme sacrifice: essentially your whole life devoted to helping others heal. learning anatomy and physiology of the entire human body is no easy task. nor is taking call, being on your feet helping sick people for 72 hours straight easy. so no, they don’t know anything other than what they do. there is no time for that. it’s not ignorance. there really is no time. that’s where the nervous aunty faces are coming from. b/c their daughter’s have sacrificed their ‘prime time’ for getting married by caring for sick children… b/c guys want someone 5+ yrs younger. if you go straight through from kindergarten, you will finish a 3 yr training when you are 29. and if you do a fellowship and most do, which add on another 3 yrs…, well you can do the math.
      35 yr old men, do not want a 35 yr old woman. let alone a 37 yr old. what age do you think they are striving for….?
      where does the cold stare come from? if you haven’t figured it out, it’s the unrealistic expectations that has fostered this culture of muslim men wanting it all: young, beautiful, educated, who can cook, will stay at home with the kids, go out there and work and be a leader but have no say at home by men who have egos that can barely fit in the door who think just because they show up and are outnumbered by the women 20:1, that they are all that and DESERVE to talk to whomever they choose, like it’s all their choice….. the icy stare is also the bitterness of being rejected by the one fairly okay guy who shows up b/c there are 10 girls sitting next to her that are just as pretty and doctors too!
      mo, you have to step up your game for you are sorely mistaken. they are not cold hearted girls. they are warm and caring, faithful, funny, hard working, who take care of their health, religious, wicked smart, empathic, beautiful on the inside and out…and perhaps wounded, shy, angry from the parental pressure of being a nothing b/c they are not married, maybe a history of trauma…who knows? unfortunately this muslim culture that has been created will not allow you to see that. and you and your buddies will continue to read their faces and mind, call us names, and come up with your own conclusions to perpetuate marrying younger and younger before they get to medical school. these girls need support and a cheer leader, someone who believes all they do is amazing and that they are something b/c of who they are, not their marital status, their age, their goal and dreams. you and your buddies need to practice elevating women….to help prepare them, if they choose to be, mothers, where at their feet will lie heaven. that’s not being a poodle on a leash, that’s being a man. appreciating women. being humbled by things they do that are better than you.
      yes, they all want to marry muslims. why would they be at a MUSLIM matrimonial event. they don’t need to say that, it’s understood. these girl wait every year, year after year to attend the one event where they might meet MUSLIM men. it’s up to you to convince your friends to all show up and be open minded, empathic and really listen to what the prophet pbuh set as an example to you.
      inshAllah you find your partner that was created for you and have a happy marriage. ameen.

  • Muslim Girl

    I had a similar experience at ISNA, though I did not go the Club ISNA route (though I did hear about it). Check out my blog here: http://www.muslimgirlinamerica.com.

  • Muslim Girl

    Mo – I have to say, while I do think some women do have unrealistic expectations, most are just VERY shy. We’re raised in culture where women are literally raised to be shy and demure, so being forward is very difficult for us. Sometimes that may come across as “stuck-up” (and I’m sure some women were, but NOT all of them). Most of the women just don’t know how to speak with Muslim guys (we are kept separated from them in every social situation growing up) so it is just hard for us. That doesn’t mean we are all insincere. Good luck to you – I hope you find what you’re looking for.

  • Hajra Siddiqui

    A well written slice of life article, I cud relate to it even here from Bombay, I guess it is the same for Muslims all over…arranged is too old school & scary & all that is needed to find your choice is too new school indeed,& then being shy doesn’t help our case even though we maybe achievers in our respective professions,yet aren’t able to provide our choice to parents… When all that’s needed is compatibility to some extent…All of us who fall into the ‘not too orthodox nor too liberal Muslims ‘ well our’s Allahhaafiz!