Ed. Note: Please welcome our newest writer Luca, whose column “Halal Since 22” will be published the third Tuesday of every month.
“You’re the nicest guy ever!”
I’ve been called a lot of things by women throughout my life. Forward thinking, a saint (after a very unsaintly evening), emotionally unavailable, a complete fucking asshole, etc. I’d prefer to be called any of those things than be called nice. Nice is mild chicken wings. Nice is clothes from Old Navy. Nice is there, but otherwise totally unremarkable. I’m not “nice,” and I cringe when I think of guys who say they are.
But a few weeks ago, for the first time since my early teens, I got called a nice guy b y a woman I was interested in. To be fair, I was being quite a bit nicer to her than I am to most people.
We met a few months ago when the MSA at my university asked me to speak about my experience as a convert during their Islamic Awareness week. As I waited for the brothers to set up the makeshift stage, she showed up. Everything else disappeared.
After greeting a couple of friends, she asked the brothers why they were starting so late, and where the revert was. I laughed, and wondered if this meant I could blend in without being The Obvious Convert. She blushed when someone pointed me out, and offered a flustered apology.
I stole quick glances at her while speaking about how I found Islam, and wondered if this would be part of the story of how I found my wife. The next time I saw her was at a protest a few weeks later. I led my friends through a crowd of thousands to an open space. When I looked up I realized she was right beside me, with a smile that drowned out the speeches and chants around us.
Things were looking good. This was a much better story than I was used to. For the last year of my jahiliyya life I had mostly been meeting women through Tinder. I’d show up to the coffee shop early so I wouldn’t have to pay for them. We’d talk for a couple hours. I’d ask them if they liked shisha. We’d smoke on my condo balcony overlooking the impressive skyline, and then take it to the bedroom. I never asked them to stay over, and I would rarely call them again.
This was my routine, and it worked out pretty well. Sometimes when I looked up at their naked bodies, and felt their soft hair hanging down, brushing against my skin, I wondered what I was doing right. A few years ago I was an insecure teen, seriously concerned I would be the first asshole to never lose his virginity. And yet here I was, pinned to the bed by a beautiful woman, thinking I had the game mastered.
Maybe I had that game mastered, but the rules changed when I embraced Islam. I couldn’t pull the same shit anymore. In a way, I had to start over and become an awkward teenager again, relearning how to approach women.
She was the first I pursued in any serious way since I converted, and I felt like a giddy jackass most of the time I was with her. Opening doors, paying for coffee, texting her to make sure she got home safe. Shit, I even brought an umbrella with me to keep her out of the rain on our way to a coffee shop I thought she’d enjoy. I never carry an umbrella.
I knew this sort of behaviour would normally give me a direct ticket to a platonic friendship. I learned in my teen years that honesty, assertiveness, and being respectfully direct are the best ways to make a woman see you like that. If you ever want a shot at her, don’t wait too long to make your intentions known. Or to act on them. This strategy didn’t always end up making women fall for me. But at the very least it made me the sort of dude women would go to for honest, unattached sex after a boring date with some other guy. Some guy who I thought I was starting to sound a lot like.
I didn’t give her any sort of physical affection. The closest I got was when she offered me her wrist to smell after trying on a new perfume she just bought. That small victory felt more intimate than a lot of my past encounters clouded by the scent of weed and sweat.
The gazes too. Those were special. We chatted for hours, looking into each other, and I’d try to hold back from breaking into a tweaked out smile. It didn’t always work, but she was kind enough to just giggle.
Despite the lack of physical markers for me to measure my progress by, I did think things were going well. She seemed to really respect me. Although she did call me nice, she also told me she really admired my maturity, my intelligence, the way I interpreted Islam.
She started to open up. I heard about how her father passed away. I learned that although she was my age, she had already been married and divorced to some asshole. I was amazed by how strong she was through it all.
But she also told me about marriage proposals she was getting. There were at least three I heard of in the short time I had with her. I guess this was to be expected. She was hardworking, intelligent, practicing, and absolutely beautiful. Still, it came as a shock to me, someone who had no experience with the arranged path to love, or at least marriage.
The breaking point came when she messaged me late one night. She was upset. Friends and family had begun to give her shit about wearing her hijab loosely. She wanted to vent to me because she felt comfortable, like I wouldn’t judge her. I consoled her, but midway through her vent she mentioned another marriage proposal, this one from her brother’s friend in medical school. A proposal her mother was actually excited about. Fuck.
I realized this was it, and I had to make my feelings clear. It didn’t turn out to be so bad. She said she was honored, and pleasantly surprised. Since her divorce, she said, she was just going with the flow on these issues, so she was open to seeing where things would go with me. But, she cautioned, if her family approved of a proposal, that would probably be it for her. And as for the way I approached her? She was a big fan, even going so far as to say “It’s the best example of how a brother should approach a sister, to be honest!”
It wasn’t exactly a victory, but I survived, and felt relieved. Both that she didn’t flat out reject me, and that the lessons I learned with regard to women were at least somewhat transferable in a halal context. I saw her a couple times over the next two weeks, and things seemed to be getting more relaxed. We even made plans to head to an Islamic history museum to celebrate the end of her exams. Unfortunately, the happiness wouldn’t last long, as reality soon swept in to slap me around a bit.
I was at a friend’s party the night before we were supposed to go to the museum. Then the message I had been expecting came in. She really wanted to go with me, she said. But she told her friend about it, and her friend said it sounded like a date.
No shit, I thought.
But what seemed to me like the most innocent date you could go on was scandalous to her. In fact, it turned out our adventures thus far had been scandalous too.
She had never gone out with a man alone, she said. I was the first. When her ex was courting her, they had only met up on four occasions before he proposed. Her family or friends were there each time.
What the fuck, I thought, I’d spent as much time with her already as her ex did before they got engaged?
“You’re probably thinking what have I gotten myself into,” she said.
She was right. She said her time with me was fun, but she wanted to go back to what she was used to – a traditional, arranged process.
I was home by this point, and grateful for my sobriety. I reacted kindly to her, not wanting to tarnish the respect she had for me, but I was disappointed.
Fuck it, I thought. Go play Russian roulette with marriage and end up with another asshole.
I felt used too. What I thought was an innocent encounter actually turned out to just be a haram thrill on her end, little more than what the girls who used to cheat on their boyfriends with me got out of it. An affair of sorts with a convert she could think about until the real Muslims came around, the ones she took seriously and would actually marry. I almost asked her if she would have gone out with me the way she had if I were a born Muslim. Would she have shared as many intimate secrets, and sensual details? I decided to keep the question to myself.
I woke up the next morning and was deeply ashamed with the thoughts I’d had the night before. That night was the only time I veered into genuine “nice guy” territory, moping about a girl who didn’t pick me instead of respecting her autonomy. I felt a lot better about it all. Maybe she had jerked me around a bit, but ultimately, our inability to be together was as much my own choice as hers.
I could have abided by her wishes and pursued her in the way my great-great grandparents may have met each other. But ultimately, I realized I was chasing something I wouldn’t know how to handle if I happened to catch it. I’m not ready for marriage. She is, and she knows how she wants to get it. She also seems to know what’s ultimately best for her. I don’t think I do yet.
People often ask me if it has been harder to be halal due to the sort of life I lived before becoming Muslim. Most are surprised when I tell them avoiding alcohol, drugs, and partying is actually quite a bit easier since I’ve had extensive experience with all three, neutering the sort of curiosity that causes born-Muslims to give in. I typically avoid mentioning that the opposite is true for sex and relationships. I love sex, and the rare, intimate moments you can only achieve with someone through dating them.
Dating is a must for me. I’m going to have to make compromises, of course, as I want to end up with a practising woman. But the ultra-traditional process she wanted is something I could never give her, or, likely, anyone. I can’t compromise to that extent.
Still, I’m grateful for being able to be attached to a moment of time in this stunning woman’s life. My favourite memory with her, which I’ll carry for a while, was walking her back to class after one of our dates. We were passing by a man who looked like he was experiencing homelessness. He stopped, and I expected him to ask me for money. Instead, he looked at me and said, “Bro, your girlfriend is absolutely gorgeous,” and then walked away.
She laughed, but I wanted to run after him and give him a hug. Thinking I looked like I could belong with her was the best compliment he could have given me. He allowed me to indulge in the idea that we could date. In his mind, at least, our relationship was something that existed.
I wish her the best in her search for a husband, and I’m thankful she’s allowed me to refine my search for a wife, or at least a long-term girlfriend. The road ahead won’t be easy, but inshAllah I’ll have the strength to continue the journey in an at least a somewhat halal manner.
Either way, you’ll hear all about it.
Luca [pen name] is a journalist living in Canada.