He was undoubtedly attractive – tall, lean and muscular, caramel colored skin, full lips, high cheekbones that framed his deeply intense hazel eyes. But his black leather jacket, felt fedora, acoustic guitar swung over his shoulder and beatnik poetry journal in his back pocket were really the accessories that put me over the edge.
He had a very expressive face but there were two expressions that stuck out the most – an affable, goofy grin, and the furrowed brow intensity of a poet deep in thought. The thing that everyone noticed about him off immediately was his strong New York accent – though he’d never been to New York in his life. Let’s call him Jay.
We had met in the world music section of Amoeba Records when I was visiting San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury for a weekend. Our eyes locked over Bollywood records. He said he loved old-timey Bollywood too. I asked if he was Desi, and he said he wasn’t though he got that a lot.
That night, we listened to old records of Rai music from the Maghreb. He was an activist too, working in the anti-police brutality movement. It had burned him. He said he needed to get away. I returned to L.A. the next day and we lost touch. He wasn’t a social media kind of guy, but I received a random email from him that he had gone to work on an Alaskan fishing vessel. He was trying to unionize the fisherman up there.
A year later after I had moved back to the Bay Area, we reconnected randomly at a San Francisco 90s hiphop warehouse party. It was one of those eyes-locking-across-the-dance-floor moments of recognition. We hugged. Sparks of serendipity flew. We had our first “real” date soon after.
A couple of weeks into hanging out, I asked Jay to play a song, something he’d written. He had been carrying his guitar with him everywhere and I had yet to hear a song. He stood up in my empty living room (I was too broke for furniture) and tuned the guitar. I was sitting on the floor and the sunken ceiling light was shining on him like a spotlight.
He started singing a song about a baby. How he was a father of a child that he’d never seen. How he wished he could be in the baby’s life. About how the FBI stole his baby.
The last strum of the guitar echoed in my living room. I shifted awkwardly in my seat. He stood there quiet, shoulders slumped, smouldering at a spot on the floor.
“So is that…” I paused to clear the frog in my throat, “…ahem, that song based on a true story? Or…..?”
“It’s true, I think,” Jay mumbled softly, in his Brooklyn-ish accent. “It’s the story of a child that I think I have out there.”
“And why do you think the FBI stole your baby?” I tried to say it kindly, but it was hard to keep the skepticism out of my voice.
He started telling me the story of his ex-girlfriend and his work as a radical activist in the Bay Area. How they had met through activism. How people in the movement suspected her of being an FBI informant. How his Internet research into her soon after their break-up revealed that she was pregnant. How he confronted her, thinks the baby is his, and believes that the FBI is keeping him from his baby.
Did I believe his story? I don’t know. I believed he believed his story. And that was good enough for me at the time. Did I mention how hot he was? I was a strong believer in destiny. But it’s hard not to question the veracity of what is perceived as destined. I dated him for six months after that. (Did I mention how hot he was?)
“I think out of all them, Jay’s definitely the one I would pick,” my friend Navneet said a couple of weeks ago.
We were having one of our infamous girl-talk catch-ups and I had just asked her the question that, as of late, I just couldn’t get out of my head: “Do you think any of my exes could have been an FBI informant?”
“But, he’s the one who says that the FBI was informing on HIM,” I responded skeptically. “He said the FBI stole his baby!”
“But that’s why it makes it more likely! It’s sneaky, to throw you off the scent,” she said. “Just think about it: he was semi-delusional, he said the FBI stole his baby and maybe he was being forced to be a confidential informant for reduced time or something. He said he liked chutney music and that New York accent? I mean, he disappeared for a year in Alaska. I mean, ALASKA?”
“You know, that is true. I never did see photos from his year in Alaska,” I responded, deep in thought.
“That’s because Alaska is the name of a federal prison,” she responded firmly. “I mean, think about it. You just happened to meet in the music store? And then re-meet a whole year later? That’s just a lot of “serendipity” aka FBI planting.”
She had me there. Navneet knew how much of a believer I was in “destiny” and “serendipity” when it came to these things. If I believed a guy was sent to me because of destiny, I would always give it the good old college try. I had to be open, after all. Hadn’t that been my problem before, that I wasn’t giving guys a chance? But with serendipity in place it must be destined for love, right? Was it so wrong to be a romantic who believed in fate?
But what if serendipity was just manufactured government manipulation? What if I had based my whole search for love on this idea of destiny, when really, it was all just pretend?
“I might never be able to trust strange men after this,” I grumbled.
“If he’s wearing a trenchcoat, fedora and has a newspaper in front of his face – run.”
Last month, there was a new interview with FBI informant Craig Monteilh aka Muslim convert Farouk al-Aziz. As a part of “Operation Flex”, Craig was a criminal hired as an FBI informant to find “Muslim extremists” in Southern California mosques. His job was to join a Muslim community by pretending to be Muslim. He’d become friends with them, date them, pray with them – all to try to find inklings of terrorist activities. The only problem was, he wasn’t that great at his job.
In fact, the Muslim community became nervous about “Farouk’s” terrorist tendencies based on the things he was saying. So, they reported him to the FBI. The FBI, in turn, ignored their concerns and requests. Because, duh, he was their informant.
I remembered hearing about this wonderfully ironic tale in This American Life about a year ago. It was a horrific incident, but as a story I loved it. It was bizarre, and highlighted FBI incompetence and the weird place of surveillance culture that Muslims cohabitate with the rest of the world. It was the type of a story so full of Muslim hipster irony that you’d think you’d find it in the pages of McSweeney’s penned by Dave Egger himself.
But this time, it was the headline that caught my eye: “FBI Encouraged Me to Sleep with Muslim Women for Intel.” Monteilh states that one of the things the FBI asked him to do was to date Muslim women. Though he was married, he portrayed himself as unmarried. And what does every good Muslim community do when they see a Muslim convert? They present him with a string of eligible single Muslim potential brides for him to halal “date”.
My mind was blown. They told him he could have sex with Muslim women to gather intel?! I was familiar with how the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) tactics employed sexual relations with civil right activists to infiltrate the movement. If you saw the feature film Selma this past winter, there is a scene where an audio recording of Martin Luther King, Jr’s. extramarital sexual relations was sent to his wife by the FBI. It’s unclear if the woman was an informant but it was clear the FBI recorded the incident. The FBI’s COINTELPRO has infamously infiltrated and disrupted domestic political organizations with their covert operations for a very long time.
But I didn’t think it was something I had to worry about. Of course, as an outspoken self-described radical Muslim activist, I know that my actions are constantly under surveillance. But I’m no leader of a movement – I’m just an everyday activist. And yes, even though I know the FBI (and other government entities) are not to be trusted because, as a Muslim at this point in history, I am a target, I had expected more the general run of the mill civil rights and access to liberties types of issues.
The idea that an FBI informant had been given permission to sleep with single Muslim women for intel – that blew my mind. As an activist, a Muslim, and a single woman, do I have another hurdle when it comes to finding love? Do I have to worry that every strange man who enters my life could possibly only be doing it to get “intel”? As if dating as a Muslim woman isn’t hard enough.
And what if it was too late? What if I had already been infiltrated? How would I even know?
I have a type.
It’s someone who is a creative of some sort, usually a musician, but artists and writers and filmmakers and novelists, too. They are usually men of color, men who are passionate. Most of them are movement men, people who are activists in some way. They are usually attractive, in that smouldering, handsome kind of way. They are mostly witty, and snarky and have a little bit of an ego. Some of them don’t have jobs, or if they do have jobs, they are not making a lot of money. Because, you know, the arts. They are the kind of men that your mother would say are trouble.
Now, if we were to Venn diagram these exes of mine with characteristics of an FBI informant, I would say that almost all of them fall in the overlap. Let’s take the first character trait: Muslim. I would assume that the best candidate in either case would be a Muslim on the margins or a convert. I would also include people who expressed an interest in Islam. Most of the men I’ve dated fall under one of these three subcategories.
Second character trait: unstable. They have to be men who are risk takers, men who don’t mind abandoning their wives for a couple years to get intel by sleeping with other women. Maybe even men who have something to lose – something that the FBI can bribe them with. Since most of the men I’ve dated were perpetually broke or close to it, I can see how the money could be tempting. And, they were all risk takers for sure.
Third character trait: Affable. They have to be someone who can quickly be loved by any community. The more affable, the more friendships they make, and thus, the more information they can gather from the breadth of a community. I would also say that they have to be the center of a spoke, maybe even a leader of some sort. Like maybe the lead singer of a punk band in a counter-culture movement, for example.
Truth be told, this has turned into one of my favorite games. I spend hours daydreaming which one of my exes could possibly have been an FBI informant. I’m not operating under the assumption that I’ve done anything to warrant an FBI/CIA/government surveillance, I just operate as a Muslim activist where this is my default.
But games weren’t enough – I needed to know. So I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) asking for information about myself and any information about myself as it related to my exes. I gave them the top five list, just to be sure. I wasn’t sure which agency to submit it to – FBI? CIA? NSA? Homeland Security? There were just so many to choose from! But, given the recent report citing that the NSA was monitoring Muslim emails and phone calls, I decided to give them a try.
Within four weeks, a crisp, white, official looking envelope arrived. At first I worried it was the IRS, but I hurriedly opened the letter and read: “We have determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter in accordance with Executive Order 13526 …”
What the hell?
I’d just been GLOMAR-ed.
When you are single, it’s not a far leap into the quicksand of self-doubt and the “Why won’t anyone be with me?” despair conversations. What am I doing wrong? Do I not give men a chance? Do I have commitment issues? Am I not asking for the right thing?
The thing is, I’m grown up enough to have corrected these issues. I give every man an honest chance, I am loyal to a T (and maintain friendships with many of my exes still), and have vision boarded and slingshotted into the Universe my relationship desires ad nauseum. I believe now, more than ever, that if I am meant to be with someone, I just need to pray and trust in Allah.
But what about trust?
How are you supposed to trust men trying to date you when anyone could actually be trying to gather intel? What if the reason I’m single is because I harbor a secret skeptism that all men are trying to gather intel for the government? What if serendipity never really existed and it was all just government master manipulation? How am I supposed to find a Muslim man then?
One thing is clear – Next time an aunty or uncle asks me why I haven’t met anyone, I’m going to say that I’m fearful that all the eligible men are FBI informants sent to seduce me. That should shut them up for at least a month or two.
Read more by Tanzila, here.
Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and can be read monthly in her Radical Love column. An avid writer, she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the anthology Love, Inshallah. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.