2017

I’m sitting here in my bedroom in a small town in England, with three (now two) hours left of the year that was 2017. My computer is still set to Australian time, a stubborn attempt to cling to notion that I’m simply on an extended holiday, my out-of-office message waiting to be reset. I don’t even know why I still write on this blog – it has long ceased to serve its original purpose, but I suppose this clinging thing extends further than I’d like to admit.

A year ago I’d never heard of the place I now live in, never pictured living my life in a brick veneer house in a cul de sac with a concrete-paved backyard and gas heating in every room. But here I am, in a place I call home, for now.

Where is home? Is there such a place? Should we even aspire to construct a home in this temporal world (it’s all temporal, I tell myself through gritted teeth), or is that an illusory and ultimately fruitless pursuit? I never called myself Australian until I left the country; the words didn’t sit comfortably on my tongue. But Australia is the custodian of all my memories, even if an unwilling one. It’s where I was born, where my sister who was born alongside me died and is buried. It’s where I went to school and where I first had my heart broken and got my first paycheck and where my favourite noodles are. It’s where I married my husband and where my friends are and where I still dream I am, in the house I lived in with my family for over two decades, a house in which none of us live anymore.

This year was not one of my finest. I stagnated, fell into old habits and created new ones far worse than those I had discarded. I travelled constantly and stayed in nice hotels and ate lots of good things. I posted pretentious things on social media. I cringed at the ease with which I spent money and crossed borders while so many are caged behind high walls and guarded fences. My friends got married, got pregnant, got mortgages; I pretended to be a real adult like them, but really, I just wanted to stay at home in my pyjamas and stalk friends of friends of friends (of friends of friends) on Instagram. I baked brownies and tried my hardest to be a good wife, a good daughter, a good friend, good at keeping my toiletries in a clear plastic bag and my carry-on baggage under seven kilograms.

These things are so elusive, adulthood, home, goodness. I know with certainty that I am getting older with the passing of each year, but I am far less certain that I am getting any better or any wiser. In some ways I know far less than I did at seventeen; there is a cruel clarity to the melodrama of those years. I think of a line from one of my favourite books, The Gathering by Anne Enright:

‘I look at my own children and I think you know everything at eight. But maybe I am wrong. You know everything at eight, but it is hidden from you, sealed up, in a way you have to cut yourself open to find.’

So maybe, just maybe, this is what we’re doing, year by year. Cutting through the layers we’ve constructed to arrive at something resembling self-awareness. Getting closer to being the person I could be, if I could just stop aimlessly clicking on Facebook posts from 2012. Cutting through the multitude of lies we tell ourselves, tell others. I’m happy. I’m over you. I’m having so much fun, that’s why I’m on my phone posting about how much fun I’m having, filters and all. I care so very much about Syrian refugees. I know how to use the word dialectic without looking it up. This is the life I’d imagined for myself – really, it is.

The truth of it all is known only to the One closer to us than our jugular vein. All there is for us to do is to keep cutting through the layers, painful and frightening and awful as it may be. Here’s to creating temporary, beautiful homes. Here’s to trying to be good. Here’s to another year of cutting through, of fumbling and flying and falling, with only love to break the fall.

Over to you now, whoever (if anyone) is reading. What was your year like? What are you hoping for and what do you love?

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The Muslim with a past

References to Person X having a past are frequently thrown around, a bogeyman no one is quite willing to define. The term itself means nothing; by definition, everyone has a past.  The real sting is contained in what it alludes to, in the whispers and the rumours and the idle speculation. This alleged past may consist of anything from drinking alcohol to clubbing to premarital sex, the common theme being a perceived inability to keep those urges in check.

There are many different facets of this discussion. A commonly used example is that of the partier turned mosque-goer who has seen the light and turned a new leaf and all those other feel-good euphemisms. This person, often a male but sometimes a female too, may try to erase the evidence of their previous lifestyle, but the social media traces are difficult to obliterate. Photos may linger of a uni costume party, a hug between a male and female who are obviously not brother and sister, and any half-decent Facebook stalker will be able to unearth it and share their findings with prospective partners, their families and friends.

How should a prospective partner view these activities? Are they to be dismissed as mere youthful explorations, or can they be held against the person as evidence of an unsavoury character? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. Each person’s story is unique and should be viewed as such, but it does raise the question of where a prospective partner draws their line in the sand. For some, a deal-breaker may be premarital sex, but this assumes that it’s possible to know who has and who hasn’t done the deed. The expectation that a person volunteer this information is unrealistic; for many, it may be preferable to suspect but never pursue the matter further. This may be particularly applicable when both parties are well into their twenties and thirties, an age at which it may not be unreasonable to presume the person has had multiple relationships, some of which may or may not have involved a level of physical intimacy. If a person volunteers the information that they were not a practising Muslim for most of their life, the logical assumption is that they would have engaged in behaviours contrary to the accepted norm.

A more uncomfortable example is that of the person who identifies and is identified as a practising Muslim, but who may have done (or be doing) things they are not proud of. The notion that the person in the MSA prayer room could be the very same person at a club or a brothel is too strange and disgusting for most people to contemplate. It disgusts us because it speaks to the essence of who we are: both base and luminous, spiritually elevated and sordid, all of these forces dwelling coexisting within the one body. It disgusts us because we have all done or have wanted to do or will do things we would never admit to anyone, things lying dormant in the dark recesses of our mind until awakened. If our feet have not physically walked us to unsavoury places, there are many, many things we may have engaged in from the comfort of our bedrooms, like watching things we shouldn’t or saying things we would never say in person. Where do these online activities sit in conversations about a past? Are they of any relevance to a prospective partner, or are they considered to be less reprehensible simply because they were confined to a computer screen?

It is perfectly understandable that people would prefer to marry someone who has not engaged in certain behaviours, particularly if they have been successful in avoiding these behaviours to date. It is for each person to delineate the precise boundaries of what they will and won’t accept in another person, and how willing they are to forgive past transgressions if conceded. However, it is also equally true that women are often held to higher standards of moral conduct than men, her ‘virtue’ fragile and prized, her reputation far easier to sully. This is partly due to a skewed discourse where men’s ‘urges’ are viewed as so strong that any lapse in judgment on their part is entirely plausible, even excusable. These men may still be considered to be fine marriageable material, whereas a woman who engages in similar behaviours may be considered to be irretrievably marked. Ultimately, whether male or female, the simple truth is that we cannot know everything about the person we marry, nor should we aspire to. It is easy to condemn, but the complexities of human character do not lend themselves as easily to broad strokes of sinner and saint. We are all broken in ways we cannot comprehend, let alone explain to others; we can only strive to make beauty out of the broken.

A Letter to my 19 year old self

I’m not exactly 100 years old, but when I look back on some of the decisions I made in my late teens and early 20s I can’t help but cringe. There are so many things I wish I’d known then, so many things I wish people would have told me and spoken about openly. But I wasn’t the first person to make a few silly decisions, nor will I be the last. In the interest of saving a few young MSA girls from treading the road best left not taken, here is a letter from me to my younger self/all the girls I see so much of myself in:

Dear 19 year old self,

I know you think you know what you’re doing. I know you have good intentions and it’s all for the sake of Allah and so on and so forth. But that’s how it always starts, isn’t it? Innocence is often corrupted not through evil, but through the misdirected desire to do the right thing.

You may think the right thing is to keep your voice down and your eyes to the ground in person, but the real danger is behind the screens. You may think the right thing is to have a chat about this event or organising that stall, but it so easily comes undone. It’s so easy to be swept away, to give your heart to some nice boy with a beard and pretty words about the ummah and what the future will hold for the two of you.

Pretty words aren’t necessarily empty ones. They are promises and well-meaning ones at that, but they are promises which may or may not come to pass. He will tell you to wait, and your heart will jump to give him a chance, but your head should form the reply ‘I wait for no one’. When he tells you he’s not ready, tell him to come back when he is. If he tells you he is ready, don’t believe him until he shows you he is. Take notes at events instead of sneaking glances across the room. Pay attention to your friends and your studies, because they are the only things you are guaranteed to leave here with.

Does all of this mean you can’t have any fun? Of course not. Have a giggle about the crushes, the awkward and cutesy encounters over the bake stalls and BBQs.  Many of them have borne fruit and blossomed into permanent and lifelong commitments. But so many haven’t.

This is why I am telling you something you probably don’t want to hear: don’t waste your best and brightest years on uncertain love. Protect your heart before you get attached. Protect your heart from those who would do harm to you without meaning to. Protect your heart from the love which just isn’t ready to blossom yet. Let the premature, uncertain love go, and trust that the certain love will come when it is ready.

PS-Just because you call him ‘brother’ doesn’t mean you aren’t flirting.

How not to be a Muslim male jerk

In a previous post here, I wrote all about the struggles faced by Muslim women in their search for a partner. I know that many men may have read it and thought, ‘well geez, sucks to be them’. But sympathy isn’t going to get us anywhere. When the system we operate in is so skewed and unequal (yes patriarchy, I mean you), real action needs to be taken and men need to play their part. I’m going to give men the benefit of the doubt and assume that you guys don’t know what you can do to help when it comes to the area of romance, so let me make it easy for you with a few suggestions:

1.) Don’t stuff women around

Are there women who are happy to engage with men without wanting it to go anywhere? Undoubtedly, yes. However, society dictates that a woman’s window to get married is much narrower than a man’s is. When she likes you, she’s not operating on your time; she can’t simply wait around indefinitely for you to get it together. If it doesn’t work out, the stigma attaching to her as a woman with a failed relationship or two is so much worse than yours as a man, so if you know you have no intent of getting married to her, leave her be. (None of this ‘I-thought-we-were-just-friends’ business when confronted with your actions.)

2.) Approach her! Tell her you like her!

She may just like you too, but she most likely can’t do anything about it. If and when women do initiate, they run the risk of being seen as overly forward or ‘desperate’, so please help her out and kick things off.

But if she doesn’t return your interest, don’t get angry. Some men seem to think they are entitled to being considered by any woman they ‘choose’, that the attention they pay to a woman is a coveted privilege they are bestowing upon her. It’s not. She has as much of a right to say no as you do.

3.) Don’t assume she’s going to say no because of your wallet size…

Please, please don’t pre-emptively pull the plug because you think you don’t have enough to offer. Let her be the judge of that.

4.) But at the same time, at least try to sort yourself out

Work at a supermarket. Do security work. Get a lemon of a car. Meet her parents. Do what you need to do to get things across the line. Show her that you’re serious about her by taking your life seriously. Stop taking six years to finish a three year degree. You can do it.

5.) Don’t be a jerk

Just don’t be a jerk, ok? Please? (And yes, if you’re generally a ‘nice guy’ who just happens to be a jerk to women when it comes to your love life, you’re still a jerk.)

*If you need some hints on how not to be a jerk and the above hasn’t enlightened you, please note the following:

1.) Sneering at women’s less-than-perfect hijab is not on.

2.) Repeated flirting when you have no intention of following through is not on.

3.) Sharing sexist jokes/memes/anything at all is also really, really not on.

4.) Repeated flirting when you have a partner already is really, really, really not on. Really.

 

 

 

 

 

Why do married people disappear?

I haven’t written anything in months. My Facebook profile, never the most active, has all but died out entirely save for the odd article about inequity in the housing market or tropical fish. After all I’ve written, all I’ve tried to speak about and observe and document, I can’t help but ask myself: have I become the old cliche of the married person who disappears?

The answer is a lot more complicated than I’d once thought. Having seen many friends get married before I did, the pattern was almost always the same. When they’d meet someone special, the details would be dissected and analysed with the whole group. Together, we’d chart the highs and lows, sharing screenshots and mugshots and soppy midnight text messages. When things turned serious, we’d get together and plan the parties and the dresses and make tasteless jokes about their entry into the mysterious realm of physical intimacy.

But once the parties were done, the money stuffed into envelopes and the honeymoon pictures circulated, things were never quite the same. Messages became few and far between, the details of their new life scarce and vague at best. Outings had to be planned weeks in advance, often slotted in around their partner’s absence. ‘Let’s meet up on Friday night, my husband will be out at a class.’ They often seemed to want to consolidate their formerly individual friendships out of convenience, which meant it was difficult to ever spend time with them one-on-one.

I used to get annoyed at these people. I’d wonder what it was they were doing that was so significant and time-consuming. When I got married, I thought I’d finally figure out their secret, only to find out that the big secret was something so glaringly obvious: there’s simply less time to go around.

The reasons for this are simple. You have a new housemate, partner and friend all rolled into one, and for the relationship to have any chance of success, there needs to be at least some investment in the way of quality time. Assuming at least one party works or studies full-time, this leaves only nights and weekends. Depending on the couple, you might want to have at least a couple of nights a week or free slots on the weekend allocated to spending time together. This already cuts into your time, but you then also have the additional responsibility of scheduling in family time.

As a single person, you often live with at least some members of your family, which means you get to see them incidentally as you all go about your daily business. But when you move away from your family, the incidental contact disappears. You suddenly go from seeing your parents every day to seeing them once, maybe twice a week at best. That means at least one night out of every seven will be spent visiting your family. But wait, there’s more! Now that you have a second family to factor in, you’re down another night in the week, and if either you or your spouse have large extended families, your time is squeezed even further. (If both of you have huge extended families, it’s pretty much game over.)

What this means is not that married people stop caring about anything outside of their partner, but simply that things get pushed down the priority list. If it’s a choice between spending time with friends or family, family will usually have to take precedence.  If it’s a choice between a gathering with close friends or a party with a bunch of acquaintances, close friends will of course take priority. There are only so many hours in the day, and naturally some things will fall by the wayside. Some people may be more efficient than others, but for most people, it seems that something will need to take a hit when they first get hitched, whether it be volunteer work or attending as many social events.

Of course, everything mentioned above is subject to some caveats. I’m certainly not suggesting that single people don’t have obligations and responsibilities of their own, or that it’s somehow justifiable for people to simply dump their friends once they have a partner. Many of us have felt the sting of a married friend who seems to have viewed friendship as a dispensable commodity. Some of these married friends have even been guilty of dishing out the same tedious relationship advice they would have abhorred only months before. (‘When you know, you’ll just know’.)

But singletons have also been guilty of doing a preemptive dumping of their married friends, assuming they are less available before they even get a chance to say otherwise. Married people may feel they are no longer as relevant or sought after by their friends. There can also be the assumption that your partner will take care of each and every one of your emotional needs, when in reality a married person may need their friends more than ever. Very few people take it upon themselves to really ask someone how their marriage is going, leaving the onus on the married person to reach out if they’re floundering.

As people get married later and later in life, they will come to the marriage with a more established set of social relationships, which may mean their friendships will hold up better post-marriage. Even those who ‘disappear’  may not necessarily do so because they’re Halal-drunk on newlywed bliss; they may also be struggling to adjust and cope with their new lot of challenges. The same, and a whole lot more, goes for friends who have children. While these friendships can seem like hard work because parents are limited in their availability, it’s important to reach out and check in to see how they’re doing, even if just with a quick message.

Some people make juggling different priorities look easy. But if you’re anything like me, this feels less like juggling and more like dropping two balls for every one picked up. It’s extremely difficult to give each and every commitment its due right, and in every single relationship there is the potential for one party to feel like they’re getting less than they’re giving. If this is perennially the case, it may be worth confronting the person, but if you can see that they’re just going through a particularly busy period, try to cut them some slack and wait for them to reappear when they’re ready. Or even better, try to coax them out of their Halal high (or low, or tedious median) into a well-overdue reappearance.

2015

‘Only bad things happen quickly.’

I read this in a book (‘Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart’, if you’re interested) and agreed wholeheartedly. Anything good seems to take time and effort to build up, but things can change in an instant for the worse. A car crash. A job termination. A careless word spoken in anger.

But this year, something wonderful happened quickly. I met someone wonderful. Within a fortnight, we spoke about getting married. And just a couple of months later, we were.

We sometimes joke that we need to invent a more exciting story about how we met. Truthfully, there was nothing dramatic about how we came to be.  We’d seen each other around. We’d spoken a few times in the tentative manner of Muslim-not-yet-couples. I’d formed an impression of him as being serious, but sweet, and when the idea of us was suggested, we both ran with it.

I always wondered what it meant when people said ‘you just know’. I still do, actually. For me, it was less about ‘knowing’ and more about doing. Plenty of people can feel things for each other –amazing, powerful, fuzzy feelings. But things come horribly undone when it comes to doing. They’re vague about your plans together. They’ll say ‘it’ll happen soon’, but it doesn’t. They disappear, then reappear. They’ll say now isn’t the right time for that conversation and that confrontation, all of it masking the fact that you aren’t the right people for each other.

So if you want to know how I knew with him, here’s what it was.

Everything he said he’d do, he did.

He was always kind, and he always listened.

He had unshakeable faith in Allah.

He made plans for our future, not just the lofty fantasies, but the nitty-gritty logistical details too.

He trusted me, and I trusted him in return.

Such simple things. Such rare things.

It wasn’t a ‘fairy tale romance’. He didn’t ‘complete’ me. We were two complex humans with complex backstories when we met, which inevitably meant there would be bumps along the way. We’d been disappointed before, but this only made us more careful not to disappoint each other. The stories we’d lived through individually became shared ones, moments to relive and dissect and analyse together.

I’m married now. But I won’t presume to offer condescending pieces of advice like ‘it’ll happen when you’re least expecting it’, because some people can spend their whole life not expecting and then not receiving.

I won’t say ‘work on yourself first and it’ll happen’, because that implies that married people are somehow superior to singles. (They’re not, and I’m not.)

I won’t even say ‘it’s all naseeb’, because my naseeb could just have easily been to remain alone.

I will say this: this year has been a dark one in so many ways. Desperation in the sea. Indifference, cruelty and blind privilege on the land. The widening gap between rich and poor and the continual denial of #blacklivesmatter. I don’t fool myself into thinking that this will change any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate our personal triumphs, our little everyday joys, even as we raise our voice against injustice.

I pray that as this year ends, you find a companion, if this is what your heart longs for. I pray that you find peace and tranquility in company or in solitude. I pray that you keep fighting and keep holding onto your faith. I pray that you eat delicious things and see wonderful places while remembering those who can do neither. Most of all, I pray that you find the strength to keep giving and receiving love in all its wondrous, unexpected and beautiful forms.

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Muslim parents and marriage

In an ideal world, parents and children would all hold hands and embark on the wonderful road towards marriage in harmony and sync. The fact that I couldn’t even write that sentence with a straight face should tell you that this is not always the case. Unfortunately, parents and children are frequently at loggerheads over who to marry, when to marry and how to marry. Even in the absence of serious conflict, your parents may not necessarily be all that helpful in the search for a partner. This may be through no fault of their own, but it only serves to make a complex process that much more awkward, icky and painful.

Parental obstruction or lack of assistance can take on any number of forms. Let’s take a look at some of the most common forms:

1.) The Inflexible Parents

‘She must be Lebanese’

‘He must have a house and a bank balance of $100,000.’

‘No one from that part of Pakistan.’

These are just a few examples of conditions set by parents. Sometimes these are communicated through direct warnings and ‘advice’ sessions, and sometimes they are entirely implicit. Some of their suspicions are grounded in prejudices about other cultures. Sometimes they just can’t be bothered dealing with anyone or anything outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes there are real fears about loss of control and identity if their children were to marry into the unknown, and very frequently, it’s all of these things mixed together. Whatever the case may be, their inflexibility is going to leave you with the choice of either falling in line and abiding by their rules or trying to open up a space for negotiation.

2.) The Clueless Parents

These parents are supportive in theory, but can’t or won’t offer much in practice. They just aren’t quite sure how it’s all supposed to work. The way they met and got married either just doesn’t work in your context, and their suggestions are just not all that applicable to you. This is often because they lack know-how and social connections i.e. there’s no waiting auntie brigade to make suggestions. Maybe your parents aren’t practising Muslims or into the cultural scene. Maybe your parents aren’t Muslim at all. Whatever the case may be, you’re pretty much on your own here.

3.) The Hands-off Parents

These parents expect you to do all the legwork. This may be because they just think it’s your life and you should decide what you want to do and how you want to do it, or maybe they just don’t really care if you get married or stay single. Bring them in towards the end when you’ve already made up your mind and they’ll be fine, but again, don’t expect much help from them along the way. (But if you’ve been raised by hands-off style parents, you’re probably used to doing things of your own volition in any case.)

4.) The Pushy Parents

These parents are keen to get you married off. Embarrassingly keen. They’ll take any opportunity to push you in the pathway of eligible prospects and have little regard for whether the person is actually compatible with you or not. They’ll guilt-trip you into meeting just about anyone who ticks their boxes, regardless of whether the person ticks any of yours. They think you’re ‘picky’ and immature, but you think they just don’t get it.

5.) The Inconsistent Parents

These parents send mixed messages. They claim to be  fine with someone of a different culture, but if you actually bring it up they’ll shut down the idea entirely. They’ll say the guy must come over and formally ask for your hand, but then freak out if any guy actually wants to come over. There’s one rule for one sibling and an entirely different rule for another.

I don’t want to paint a picture of parents being horrible bogeymen out to destroy their children’s lives.  It’s not easy for parents to see their children diverge from their traditions and accepted norms, but it’s certainly easy to be a child whose parents are inflexible and difficult to communicate with. Some compassion and empathy is required on both sides to make the situation work.

What are your parents like when it comes to marriage? Are they very involved or are they more hands-off?