Book Review: Salaam, Love

Book Review: Salaam, Love May 15, 2014

When Love, InshAllah, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Masnavi,  was initially published two years ago, I was thrilled. I may not have necessarily related to all the stories of those women but was happy to read them. And as cliche as it sounds, it was really challenging the notion that Muslimahs are a monolith. But the editors’ second anthology, Salaam, Love,  “an anthology of stories about love written from the perspectives of Muslim men,” initially had me less convinced.

I really wanted to dislike this book and was wary of the way it was framed.

Image via Love, Inshallah.

We live in a society that is already reluctant to hear the voices of Muslim women, whose experiences and discussions are often co-opted by Muslim men. Muslimahs struggle, creating hashtags and seeking platforms to have their voices heard. They constantly add their voices (to help of course!) when they should just sit and listen instead of disingenuously trying to increase their online profiles by jumping into discussions that should be women-only.

I didn’t want to feed into what I thought might be a frenzy of lauding our male counterparts, as Amina recently wrote about.

When I saw that dedication of Salaam, Love read: “For all the men who asked: “Where are our stories?” I almost wanted to hijabdesk.

Men are asking where their stories are? Men, who have dominated writing circuits, mainstream blogs, are quoted in BuzzFeed because of their popularity (not their substance or relevance), and are still in control of so much that is published within Muslim communities? Even when the topic is feminism? *sigh*

But 70 excuses aside, I have previously referenced Love,InshAllah for their initiative in starting and continuing important discussions about sexuality and Islam in an open, mature and responsible manner — even if I don’t always agree with them.

I had a lot of questions even before I began to read the book.  Who was writing? Would they be generalizing? Was I reading this so I could get some insight into the romantic mind of a believing man?

I did a little bit of research and looked at the writers page on the book’s website. I wanted to get an idea of what and who I was going to be reading.

Although contributors are predominantly of the same age and same geographic area (California), they are of different ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation. They all self-identify as Muslims.

They were all going to be sharing their stories as a Muslim man. I hoped they would be varied.  As a reader, I wasn’t reading it to get into the mind of *a* Muslim man. I was interested in reading about different experiences. I appreciate that each story is unique. No two struggles or outcomes are the same. I wasn’t sure that one book was going to be able to capture all of these complexities in a meaningful way.

I am also not used to hearing Muslim men express their feelings of love in an intimate manner- unless it is in the lyrics of music or poetry. Not in a manner that I can relate to or that isn’t solely for entertainment purposes.

Still, I received my copy and dove in.

The book was divided into three parts: “Umma: It Takes a Village,” “Sirat: The Journey,” and “Sabr: In Sickness and in Health.”

I found the first story, “Soda Bottle and Zebra Skins,” to be hilarious. It touched upon references that I was familiar with: MSA experiences; the new moments of fear, excitement and newness of a relationship; the constant balancing of halal versus haraam in mixed-gender company. The style in which the storyteller was narrating was one I really enjoyed. I certainly laughed out loud when I read this line: “Marriage is a life raft wherein one’s libido can float along safety as it sails down a river of choppy American hypersexuality.”

Then there were the stories that made me cringe, such as “Just One Kiss,” in which marital infidelity was blamed on the offending woman, and then she is accused of “self-pity.” I had to stop reading for a bit after that. The voice of a man victimizing himself as the explained his wife’s emotional anguish was enough to make me want to punch the screen off of which I was reading. But then again, these are the vast array of *voices* of men. Even if they are reductive and misogynist, they are voices. That they exist makes them true, no?

There were the typical stories of awkward rishta attempts, some of which I found funny and similar to tales of my friends and relatives. The stories of men still navigating through the process, be it online encounters or masjid meet-ups or those that did not work out, felt more real to me. The tone was not overly introspective but practical in some stories.

I enjoyed the use of description in “The Other Iran-Iraq War” and the twist that came with it. In “AwkwardMan”, the author explains his social awkwardness and quirky sense of humour that were not always appreciated or understood. It was very simple and honest story but also subscribed to a fairytale ending, which almost renders it boring. Still, I found it comical, which was a nice contrast to other stories that were too lyrical for my taste (“A Grown-Ass Man,” “Prom, InshAllah”).

The story “Planet Zero” was written so beautifully and hauntingly. The author’s experience of how he witnessed pressure from his partner’s family to separate them, is one that really made me melt. The racism, the injustice, and disrespect he experienced were enough to make my fists clench. Prejudice is a reality within our communities, even though we share the same faith.

Other realities are the voices of the writers who spoke of their experiences as queer Muslim men. “The Ride” was really intense and raw as it touched on issue relating to substance abuse and mental health pieces; how the writer was so sickened by his need to be closeted; how distraught he was after his friend died; and his struggle with Allah and how he came to use his experience to strengthen his spiritual bond.

To read “In the Unlikliest of Places” was powerful to see how an encounter with another man is actually what propelled the author back to fasting in Ramadan. Like the concepts of love and intimacy, spirituality – and what draws us to it – is quite complex.

In “Finding Mercy,” a failed relationship is what draws the writer to his Creator. He contemplates whether this relationship process is for something more profound; in search of mercy or perhaps for the only Love we can be certain of – the one of Allah for his servants.

However, part way through reading the book – save a few very touching and poignant reflections – I felt that many of the stories ended up in a happily-ever-after theme or the ever-touching “I found my partner and I’m good now.” What felt like a repeated messages was the “we’ve battled against the forces of the Mother-in-Law, fought against long distance relationships and now we have reached the summit” mentality.

I realize that these challenges are all universal. But what some of those stories did not touch upon is that relationships are a constant struggle. They are a journey, one that is often extremely difficult.

Telling the story of love and how one one’s partner met is wonderful. I always grin when I am asked to re-tell the dramatic tale of how I got together with my own spouse. It’s romantic and dreamy but it’s just a part of the story. Just the beginning.  I felt that some of the pieces from Salaam, Love told tales of how the process began or ended, and not really much of the reality that is the on-going struggle, or even an acknowledgement that although that specific challenge was resolved, whether the outcome was good or bad, there are more bumps along the way.

I also wonder whether some of the situations of the writers might have changed since writing. The summer that I got married, there were twelve other couple I knew who tied the knot. Only three couples remain intact – and some of us by the thinnest of threads.  In an incredibly brave and honest gesture, a contributor for the Love, InshAllah book, Donna Kelli Sayed, followed up with a post about how her marriage ended shortly after the book was published. I was so moved by that. She did not gloss over the fact that she chose a different path, one that is far from the expected happy ending.

When I read stories about love, I always wonder about an update. Is that couple still going strong? Have they been able to navigate through all the challenges that come with a relationship?

As a woman who has been in a marriage sculpted by religious, cultural and heteronormative traditions, my honest experience is that it not easy, in any context or in any type of relationship. I am not saying I do not believe men when they write about their complete fulfillment; I just doubt it is all rosy all the time.

Some of my concerns were addressed in the last section of the book, which focuses on Sabr (patience) and definitely contains the most harrowing of the pieces offered.

These stories are of hardship and pain, but mostly of hope. Reading about about a couple’s struggle with infertility in “Fertile Ground” was very interesting.  I hadn’t ever heard about that difficult journey from a man’s perspective before: their feelings on the experience of feeling helpless, watching their spouse endure treatments, the stress, the vast emotions that come with trying to conceive; how they are supposed to be stoic, strong and valiant but are also hurting inside.

I have family members (female) who spoke of their experiences with infertility with me and I empathized with them. The honesty of the struggles is important, keeping in mind this is one man’s experience. And he wrote with such candor while injecting subtle humour. I appreciated that as a reader.

I think I might have even teared up, which surprised me. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be moved by an anthology of men’s stories.  But that is where the stories on health really draw on understanding. When a person is explaining the difficulty of losing a loved one, one tends to forget their gender, race or religion. That loss is so profound and universal.  I can relate to loss and to health struggles. Not necessarily to “love” or “lust”, as they are so many different variables, but to loss. It is the only thing we are certain of in this life: that there will be death.

In the story “The Promise,” you read about the writer’s devotion to his wife and his frustration with God as his wife battles cancer. There is something chivalresque about a man caring for his beloved wife and being infuriated by her pain, something so honest and pure in that love. Probably the main reason we all swooned after The Notebook. (OK, *I* swooned; many other probably did not.) It is a tragic love story that pulls at your heartstrings.

In “Echoes” and “Becoming Family,” the situations are intense as illnesses are being diagnosed and treated, so it is easy to root for the narrators, who seem vulnerable, reflective and trying to cope. Not only are they dealing with physical health issues; their emotional vulnerabilities also surface.

I have been in situations (I had an ACL reconstruction surgery last fall) where I had to rely heavily on my husband for physical support for a few weeks from every aspect from using the bathroom to dressing. It was taxing for him and it was humbling for me.  Looking back, I would have loved for him to write about how he felt, his frustrations, and how it was for him emotionally.

It is in the humanity of these stories, the passion and the feeling that we connect with storytellers and those sharing their raw emotions.

The machismo factor is strong in our community and other than Muslim singers and artists (and Rumi) we don’t hear of our men speaking of love and romance and sexuality. For a variety of reasons – be they imagined or not, cultural or religious.

The pieces in this book were all written very differently, which is expected with over 20 different contributors, some of whom I connected with more as a reader. I am glad I read Salaam, Love, if only as a simple reminder that no two stories are alike, and that there are billions of definitions for what constitutes love.

Currently, I do not know any Muslim men who have read it. I am asking a few of my close friends and family to give it a try. It should lead to some pretty interesting conversations, something that I think was one of the objectives of Salaam, Love: to start and continue important conversations and share experiences.

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