Two years ago, aboard a Eurostar train to Paris, I spent a two-hour journey reading a collection of essays called Love, Inshallah. The book was a pioneering effort for two important reasons: it showcased Islam in America in all its glorious diversity, and it projected a strong female voice, breaking cultural and religious stereotypes of docile, homogenous, powerless women trapped in a world not of their choosing.
When I blogged about Love, Inshallah, I did not know the women behind the book. Turns out Ayesha Mattu, one of its two editors, had read my post and knew who I was when we met as part of a writers’ circle. Why am I telling you this? Because I need to insert a disclaimer that by the time I read Salaam, Love last month, Ayesha was (and is) a friend.
Islam. Is there any other word you can think of that conjures up stronger images, reactions, and sentiments across the world? The faith of 1.6 billion people around the globe is the subject of debate, attack, defense, paranoia, curiosity, and wild conjecture. Stereotypes are split sharply by gender, and the men usually get a bad rap. My own experiences with the faith are best reserved for a longer post, but know this: I have formally studied both the religion and its early culture, so I speak from a platform of at least some knowledge.
Salaam, Love is a sort-of sequel to Love, Inshallah. This collection of 22 deeply personal and frequently heartrending narratives by American Muslims smash the supposed monolith that Islam is perceived to be, and are shared by those who are typecast perhaps more than any other group I know: men. Frequently believed to be a conglomerate of beards, skullcaps, and patriarchal tyranny, Muslim men are the mythic bogeyman that women not of the faith are warned about. Looked at askance by even their own gender, it is often thought they have nothing to say, let alone feel or reflect.
Related from their perspectives and experiences as men, as Muslims, and just people, the book shares with us the passion, heartbreak, loss, confusion, imperfection, and intimacy that comes with being human. From within the framework of personal definitions of the faith to far outside it, these men: native-born Americans and immigrants, gay, straight and every orientation in-between, Caucasian, Arabic, South Asian and born into other faiths, tread delicate territory as they navigate their relationship with themselves, loved ones, and their identity, all the while leaving the door wide open for us to follow their journey. From infertility to infidelity, sexual confusion to questioning tradition, the gamut of their experiences leave us enriched, educated, and often plain agape.
The “unfeeling male” stereotype evaporates before our eyes. The “benevolent patriarch” melts into an unrecognizable puddle. And the “men don’t talk about their feelings” notion? Smashed beyond smithereens. Where is the seemingly violent man who forces his will on life and women? And the pious one who holds dear his prayer mat? We meet agnostics, anti-traditionalists, believers, and those crippled with self-doubt. As we lurk, voyeurs in their vulnerable worlds, we soak in their reflected humanity, feel their pain, and exult in their expressions of happiness. Gender lines dissolve, and all that is left is unabashed, universal emotion and a strong sense of being people.
It is to the book’s credit that it allows us to build absolutely no preconceived notions and offers the literary equivalent of open-heart surgery. This is a brave, groundbreaking, and compelling collection that more people need to read, not just in America but around the world.
Dilnavaz Bamboat manages communications and social media for a Silicon Valley non-profit, is a scriptwriter for iPad applications for children, a writer and editor at IDEX (idex.org), a section editor at Ultra Violet (ultraviolet.in), a feminist blogger at Women’s Web (womensweb.in) and a founder member of India Helps (indiahelps.blogspot.com). She lives in the SF Bay Area.