So Many Rules to Break: On the Struggles of a Modern Muslim
Lur Alghurabi Discovers the Unlikeliest Places of Worship
My new workplace has a nice gay priest. When I started working there he changed the Christian worship room to be an all-faith room. He set up a prayer mat he got from IKEA. Put a sticker on the wall pointing to the qiblah. Smiled ear to ear when he told me about it. I said, “Thank you, I finally have a place to pray.” He said it was his absolute pleasure. Least we can do in this world, everyone is welcome here, all of that. I wished deep inside that having a prayer room a few meters from my desk at work would suddenly make me a better Muslim, but it didn’t, and I’ve never prayed.
I read about Muslim porn star Nadia Ali and how she prays two to three times a day between shoots. She’s better at this religion than I am.
In the New York Times piece “How to Be a Hoejabi,” Romaissaa Benzizoune talks about Western perceptions of Muslim Pakistani porn stars. For the West, they are a symbol of liberation: Break that mold, have all the sex you want, don’t be told what to do, you’re not your father’s property and you’re certainly not your husband’s either.
When I talk to my white friends they don’t understand why I hadn’t had sex already; if I’m in love, if I trust him, if I’m happy, if I want it, why don’t I do it?
In Iraq we say you can tell everything about a book from its title. So you become conscious of your title, of your cover. You care about how other people perceive you because they’d love to scrutinize your behavior, presume your motives, pick out the ways you’ve tainted your family’s name, compare you to their kids and how they’d never be as bad as you. Be good and try not to give them any material. What are you wearing outside the house? Will people like it, will they hate it, will they hate you, will they take your outfit to their gatherings after Friday prayer and dissect the fabrics on your skin? Your shoes were red, like a prostitute.
I haven’t inherited my parents’ commitment to religion, nor their hyper-awareness of their public image, nor their deep-rooted sense of belonging to the tradition. But I did inherit the discretion and the shame that come with being a sinner. If you’re going to be a harami, at least be a harami in secret. Don’t be open about your sin like it’s a normal thing to do. Don’t be a bad role model. Don’t sabotage the young kids who look up to you. Don’t make sin so accessible. At least acknowledge that it’s wrong, that it’s a crime, and if you must commit a crime, don’t celebrate it.
I feel like kissing someone today.
I go out on a date.
I get a kiss.
Tastes like the long ribbons of lychee candy we just bought at the carnival.
We go sit at a bench and I’m cold.
I put my legs on his and my lips on his.
We kiss, feels nice, tastes good.
Let’s do that again.
Keep going, let’s see where we stop.
I don’t have an explanation for why we draw the line wherever we do. Like that meme about Muslim kids committing every sin under the sun except eating pork. We’ll do it all: we’ll break our fast, we’ll have the sex, we’ll do the drugs, we’ll eat that steak, we’ll go to the club and we’ll drink the beer and we’ll smoke that cigarette and that weed, but don’t you get that pork anywhere near us. Do you want us to go to hell?
When Romaissaa published that article, some Muslims got angry. One man tweeted that if you raise your daughter amongst kaffirs, or infidels, then of course she’ll write a think piece about wanting to have sex with a kaffir.
When we left Iraq in the 90s, we went to Dubai. It wasn’t an easy time. Dubai lacked minimum wage laws, free health care, free education or social security, so for a few years, my family was poor as a mosque mouse. We watched our friends lead better lives than us as they transitioned from Baghdad, to Dubai, to Europe. Back then, the trip to Europe was relatively easy. Most of our friends didn’t have to swim to the mainland from small Greek islands, or walk across the Turkish borders, or hide in the backs of cattle trucks. Most of our friends applied as migrants, got visas, got on a plane and became Swedish citizens within three years. But Baba refused to apply no matter how broke we got, no matter how much hostility Dubai was developing towards us. To Baba, Sweden wasn’t worth it. He’d never let his girls grow up among the kaffirs. When he was awarded a full scholarship to MIT, he turned it down so that the kaffir lifestyle wouldn’t get the best of us. Our community was full of good Iraqi Shia Muslims who never turned their backs on their religion, ones who protected their women and segregated their places of worship and never missed a Friday prayer.
So you can imagine his disappointment when I turned 14 and he learned that instead of falling in love with a kaffir, I did worse: I fell in love with a Sunni.“I read about Muslim porn star Nadia Ali and how she prays two to three times a day between shoots. She’s better at this religion than I am.”
There’s an ancient hadith in Islam that if you can afford to get married you really should, and if you can’t, you should practice fasting and abstinence. I couldn’t fast for that long and I never wanted to abstain, so I followed the hadith and I got married. We were technically perfect for each other. Two Shia Iraqis, not too liberal, not too conservative, kind, young, educated, from loving families who supported us all they could. If we were to fail against all these odds, despite doing everything as God wanted, something must really be wrong with us. So we tried our hardest not to fail, even when the more we learned about each other the more disappointed we became, even when we disagreed on the fundamentals of how to live our lives, what to wear, where to live, the politics, the ideologies. We slowly found out we couldn’t be any more different from one another, but God hates divorce and if we were going to be good Muslims, we’d find a way to make it work.
In the two years we were together I almost killed myself three times. I don’t know if my husband had it that bad too. After a certain stage, it felt like we only communicated via the sounds our phones made when we banged them against the walls, or the vases we tossed across the room in the midst of our nervous breakdowns—angry, hurt, alone, desperate for each other’s love even when neither of us had any to offer.
I walk past a Muslim preacher on Bourke Street. I’m wearing my hijab as a head wrap and I’ve got a scarf wrapped around my neck. The preacher’s eyes are inspecting a small patch of skin on my chest, the part near my collarbones, slightly uncovered and peeking through my three winter layers. His gaze fixated on this skin, he does not see me. He has brochures lined up on a table about the Prophet’s truth, modern Islam today, the religion of peace. I think, What else does he stand for but not practice? The other men behind the table all have long beards and no mustaches. I want to be a good Muslim for a moment so I smile at them, like the Prophet said: a smile and a kind word are an act of charity. So I give in charity, I give generously like the Prophet would want me to and I smile to his followers. But the men at the booth don’t like it. They look at my head wrap: bright red and floral. My patch of skin still bare and my lipstick a deep pink. My pants a lemon color. They look and they frown. My charity is not welcome. I wonder if the Prophet would take my charity, if he would smile back at me, if he would be kind enough to maybe wave or say good morning. Salam, how are you? You good? Great. God bless. If he’d say a short prayer for me. If he’d love me, even if he could see my skin.
The Ramadan rules are clear: no food, water, smoking or sex. None of these entering your system, otherwise you have to make up for it in various, arduous ways. Lying, cheating, stealing are haram year-round so there’s no case against them that’s specific to Ramadan and they don’t break your fast. I think of other things that are haram year-round, like maybe a nice consensual blow job outside of marriage. Does it ruin your fast if you swallow? Asking for a friend. If you don’t swallow, is it the equivalent of putting a pen in your mouth when you’re drowning in your thoughts at work, except that pen is a dick and you’re not at work and you’re not drowning in your thoughts, but in someone else’s bed? What would Nadia Ali do?
My fingers are weak.
Something presses against my heart.
My fingers are strong.
Something presses against my hips.
The Quran says the things you do don’t take away from each other. They don’t cancel each other out and the angels look at each action you take as it comes. But the things we learned in school were different, and heaven and hell were always a single action away that rendered all your other actions useless. The hadith says that if you adopt an orphan you spend the afterlife in the same paradise as Muhammed. But if you hurt an animal recklessly you’ll never step foot into heaven. What if you adopted an orphan but when you were a kid burned ants under a magnifying glass? If morality is this black and white aren’t we mostly in the middle, all of us as average and unmemorable as we are?“We were technically perfect for each other. Two Shia Iraqis, not too liberal, not too conservative… If we were to fail against all these odds, despite doing everything as God wanted, something must really be wrong with us.”
The extreme consequences of heaven and hell do interesting things to our life choices. Like when I was a kid and Baba told me I must marry a good Muslim boy because a millennium-old text claimed children must only take the religion of their father, and that’s so deeply set in stone, so unchanging, that any other choice would mean that my children will suffer in hell for eternity, regardless of anything else they might do.
Sometimes I give my mother very little to love. Like when I told her I was in love with a white man and she said no, that’s not right. She asked me to think of my future children. They will be bad Muslims. Maybe not even bad Muslims. Maybe barely Muslim, half and half at best. Is that okay with me? Is that what I want for my kids? But the truth is, what are the odds of any of my kids turning out to be better Muslims than me? Anyway, it’s too late and too unlikely, no matter whom I love, that I would have good Muslim kids. How can anyone give something they’ve never had?
She says my future with the white man wouldn’t work. She asks how it could ever work if I marry someone who only converted for me, not for Allah. Who would I pray to when we fight? She asks me, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life praying alone?”
I think of my ex-husband, the only partner who genuinely shared my religion, that time my mind was on the edge of a cliff and I told him I wasn’t okay, that I needed help, and he told me to stop whining. If God hadn’t given me that divorce I would have spent the rest of my life praying alone anyway.
A few months ago I was at my first queer party with good friends. When my friend shouted, “Queer fam,” as we took a selfie, I felt unfamiliar. I had never been in a queer fam before. We gathered in a booth and looked around the room at every person we were attracted to. We went through every crush and measured the chances of it going somewhere. It was like the good times of high school except better: better people, better crushes. When Mama Alto walked into the room I didn’t want to look at anyone else. She started performing a jazzy rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Her sequin maxi dress a piece of the paradise above, and the trans flag she wore on her shoulders layered perfectly. My goosebumps were still high on my skin when she smiled at me and gave a soft wink. I was frozen, but not foreign. The tremor in her voice danced with me. The pink and purple lights of the room swayed with her voice, smooth in every move. In that moment I felt more connected to every divinity watching over me than I had ever done after a Friday sermon. The mosque she set up around me felt like the only place of worship I’d ever prayed in.
From the latest issue of The Lifted Brow. Used with permission of The Lifted Brow. Copyright © 2018 Lur Alghurabi.