What The Heart Wants

As a child, I was told that a good Afghan girl does not do anything that will bring shame and dishonor to her family, and she does not, under any circumstances, marry outside her culture and faith. I had a hard time believing those words, and felt suffocated under the pressure.

Being the rebel, and questioning Afghan traditions and Muslim beliefs, came with a price. My parents took my questioning as a rejection of them, instead of my way of  exploring and finding myself. The fact that I was not yet married at the age of twenty-seven had long been a sore spot with my mother and father. Exhausted of the disapproval, I decided to do something about it.

I decided to try dating a Muslim man.

Living in New York City, I figured it couldn’t be that hard. I was right. On a beautiful spring day, as I was standing outside the Soho Dean and Deluca, God intervened in my life – or so I thought at the time. A gorgeous, olive-skinned man approached me out of the blue.

His name was Peter…or Mike…or Chris. I can’t remember his “American” name. Funnily enough, I can’t remember his Muslim name either.

“Excuse me, where are you from?”  He asked, his skin glowing in the sun. The white V-neck T-shirt he wore revealed a muscular, hairless chest.

Quickly scanning him and concluding that he was Middle Eastern, I wondered what I should do. I could respond, Italian or Latin, be done with it, and cross the street. Or, I could flirt back.

Before I could answer, he made the decision for me, “I can tell you’re Middle Eastern.” His lips parted to show a glistening wall of perfect white teeth. “By your eyes,” he finished.

That day, I had been particularly heavy-handed with the kohl.

I flipped back my long, dark brown hair, and batted my caramel-colored eyes, “Guess which country?”  Which is how most Afghans respond when asked where they are from.

“Lebanese?”

I shook my head.

“Syrian?”

I shook my head again.  He stared at me dumbfounded – obviously mesmerized by my eyes, I thought to myself.

“Afghan,” I said with a dimpled smile.

“No way.” His jaw dropped.  “Me too.”

Oh my Lord. I have never seen such a good-looking Afghan man. The rush of blood made my heart thump faster.

Peter/Mike/Chris and I began to talk on the phone regularly and would often meet for tea and dessert or to spend time walking around the city. Not only was he good looking but he had money and a great job.  He also owned his own apartment in New York City and didn’t smoke or drink. Peter/Mike/Chris was every Afghan mother’s dream catch for her daughter.

Initially, I was excited at the prospect of Peter/Mike/Chris becoming something more. We spent the next two months getting to know each other. It was fun in the beginning, but somewhere along the way I realized that he was not interested in getting to know me, but, rather, in testing me to find out the “type” of Muslim woman I was.

Peter/Mike/Chris had recently discovered all the righteous qualities of being a Muslim man, such as being humble and virtuous. Often our conversations on Islam would end with him questioning me on the qualities of a “good” Muslim woman.

Peter/Mike/Chris grilled me on the number of guys I’d dated. With an upturned nose, he asked me if I had ever had sex with a black guy. He asked me if I observed Ramadan and prayed five times a day. He eyed my mini, sleeveless summer dresses with adoration and suspicion. He admired my exposed legs, yet looked at my shorts with disdain. He asked me if I ever wore a hijab or would ever consider wearing one.

Let’s overlook the fact that he dated all sorts of women from different races and religions. He held me to a different standard.  Finally, one evening as we were walking in Central Park, Peter/Mike/Chris told me that he thought I dressed “too American”, i.e., too slutty for him. He said if we were to continue seeing each other that I should wear less form-fitting and revealing clothes. I decided that no matter how rich or good looking a guy was, I couldn’t be with him if he did not accept me for who I was.

Next, came Omar from Washington, DC, whom I met on an Afghan dating site. By our third phone call, he was speaking to me in an ooochie-koochie, baby-poo voice. Talk about a total turn off. But, I decided to not be so dismissive and give him a chance. I asked him to visit me one weekend.

Omar was sweet and a true gentleman the whole weekend, except for one thing. By Sunday afternoon, he brought up the subject of marriage. This almost perfect stranger wanted to marry me just because we were both Afghan, and because he thought I was nice and pretty. I couldn’t believe it.

As much as it stroked my ego, surely all this oochie-koochie, baby-poo gibberish and marriage business had nothing to do with me, I thought to myself. I suggested we slow down the marriage talk and get to know each other better first. I was a rebel, a risk-taker, a daredevil, but the thought of marriage sent chills down my spine, and made my abundant body hair stand on end.

Over the next few weeks, Omar and I got to know each other a little better.  He was thirty-four years old, the youngest of four children, and, as the only son, was spoiled rotten. He still lived at home with his parents like every good Muslim child should, and was starting to feel the not-so-gentle pressure to get married and produce some cute grandchildren.

By all measures Omar was a good catch. He had a stable job with the State Department and enough money saved to provide his bride with a new home. He was a good family guy. Again, a combination any Afghan mother would love.

But, there was one problem with Omar. I was not attracted to him. It could have been the fact that he smoked almost a pack of cigarettes a day. The offensive odor would linger in his clothes, his hair, his hands, and reek out of all of his orifices.  He would drench himself with expensive cologne to drown out the cigarette smoke. The combination of the two cleared out my sinuses and gave me a low-grade headache every time I was around him.

The nail on the coffin was when Omar bought me a bottle of perfume. I never wore perfume. As sweet as the gesture was, I couldn’t picture myself drowned in some overpowering, flowery scent while walking beside Mister Cologne Smokestack.

I ended our mini-relationship by telling him that we did not have any chemistry, and I could not see us being married. Omar was upset and disgruntled, demanding that I never contact him again. Months later, through the Afghan grapevine, I found out that he married a nice, white-skinned, green-eyed, eighteen-year old virgin back in Afghanistan.

But, I didn’t give up on my quest to date Muslim men. I ventured outside the Afghan American circle and found Adir.  Adir was Palestinian-American and studying to be a plastic surgeon. Cha-ching baby! As soon as I found out this little tidbit, I began having fantasies of getting my Middle Eastern, humped nose fixed and getting breast implants for my itsy bitsy breasts.

Adir was not the most attractive man. He was five feet five inches tall, and had a stout, excessively hairy body – even for my hirsute-tolerant standards. But at this point, I was trying to think like an Afghan mother, so I hoped that his looks would grow on me. Little did I realize that his looks were the least of my problems.

Adir had some issues because of his medical training. During our third date, as we were talking about our dating histories, he scrunched up his face, and declared, “I do not do oral sex.”

I stared at a him for a long minute and then, through a mouthful of spaghetti alfredo, asked, “What do you mean, ‘you do not do?’”

“Just that!” he said, his eyes almost popping out of his head. “I. Do. Not. Perform. Oral. Sex. On. A. Woman.”

I swallowed the lump of spaghetti whole. I took a long swig of water as my fantasies of a straight nose and B-cup breasts evaporated right before my eyes.

“And do you want the woman to perform on you?” I asked.

“Of course.” He reared back at my audacity to even ask such a question.

“Well, you see, it’s different,” he said, leaning in toward me.

“It is?”  I let out a howl of laughter.  “How?”  I couldn’t wait to hear this.

He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Because of my medical training, I know what kind of stuff,” here he made a face of utter disgust, pointing his stubby, excessively hairy little index finger towards my vagina, “is down there.”

I had worked hard to accept my body. If any man was that disgusted with any part of me, he was not the man for me.

But, I was never one to give up easily. I kept trying. Tall, good-looking Sufi Alex from Kashmir came next.  We seemed like a good match.  Both of us were spiritual and artistic.  We spent most of our time together going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the many other great museums New York City has to offer. We both loved Islamic art and calligraphy, Rodin sculptures, and Chagall and Kandinsky paintings. We both adored artsy movies, and would often frequent the Angelika, a cinema in Soho that played some of the most notable independent movies and documentaries. We had intellectual conversations about life, art, literature, and philosophy.

I liked Alex and saw the potential for more. He did not ask me about my past or tell me how to dress. He didn’t smoke or drink, or speak to me in a baby voice. He did not quiz me on Islam. The topic of sex had not come up yet, but I assumed there were no issues there. Boy, was I wrong.

Late one night, we were walking the city streets after seeing a movie, when Alex yanked me into a dark alley and pushed me against the wall.

He pinned my arms down and threw his whole body weight upon me, “You’re such a tease,” he hissed.

Caught off guard and scared, I stared blankly at him.

“When are we going to have sex?”  he asked.

I tried to wiggle my hands free. “Get off of me.” I writhed my body away, which turned him on even more.

He shifted his hands and, while still pinning me against the wall, jammed his right hand in between my legs.

My heart and thoughts began to race. “What are you doing?”

“I like it rough,” he said, pushing himself harder against me.

“You’re scaring me. I’m going to scream,” I yelled.

This apparently was enough for him to back off.  He took a step back.

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said with a smile that was more of a sneer. “My ex-girlfriend liked it rough, and I thought you would too.”

My Muslim Man Plan had taken a year and a half out of my life, and it had not gone well.  The incident with Alex left me traumatized and I took some time off from dating to reflect upon my situation.

One day, while out shopping for Christmas presents for some of my friends, I ran into my old friend, David, at the Union Square Holiday Market.  After a day of shopping together, we headed to City Bakery, one of my favorite eateries.  Sitting down with a bowl of hot chocolate and some veggies from the colorful salad bar, I began to pour my heart out about my Muslim man debacle.

“Wow,” David shook his head.  “I understand wanting to make things cool with your parents, but you shouldn’t force yourself to do anything you don’t want to do.  You’re a grown woman.”

“I just wanted to make things right, you know?”  I said.

“You’re in America.  Don’t put yourself in a box,” David said, leaning towards me.

I jabbed a carrot into my mouth.

“What do you want?”  He reached over and put his hand on my leg.

“I’m tired of being the rebel.”  I took a big swig of the hot chocolate.

“Hey, we’re supposed to share that,” he laughed.  “Don’t find your momma in there.”

I handed him the bowl of hot chocolate, feeling self-conscious when our hands touched.

He took a sip, “Holy cow!” As he leaned back, his chest expanded under his red cashmere sweater.  “This is so rich.”  He put the bowl down.  “The rest is all you, babe.”

I noticed his full lips and straight white teeth when he smiled at me, and the dimple on his right cheek. All of a sudden I felt frumpy in my jeans and bulky gray cable knit sweater. I should have worn my contacts and lined my eyes today, I thought to myself.

“In the end, if you’re unhappy in life, you’ll be affected by it the most,” he said. “You are who you are. You have to accept yourself.  You can’t change for anybody.”

It was such a foreign concept to me that I listened as intently as I could.

David continued, “If you’re happy, and others are unhappy about your choices, so what?”  He shrugged his shoulders.

I rolled my eyes, “They would make my life very difficult.”

“Sure. But, is there anything more important than your own happiness in this short and hectic life?”

“I guess not,” I conceded.

His knee touched mine.

“I’ve been in an unhappy marriage, and, trust me, you don’t want that. You deserve to be happy. Don’t forsake your own happiness to get approval from anybody,” he said, with a big smile.

I reflected on what David said to me. If my Muslim Man Plan taught me anything it was that I had to find love on my own terms. Over the next few months, David and I began spending more time together, and while I loved our time together, I had my fears. David was African- American, divorced, and had a teenage son from his first marriage.   Qualities no Afghan mother would love.

Yet, David also had depth, a clean heart, and a gentle soul. David did not tell me how to dress. He accepted me for who I was and encouraged me to become who I wanted to be. He took time getting to know me and asking genuine and heartfelt questions. I never feared that if I answered wrong, that he would judge me as a ‘bad’ girl. He didn’t care if I was a virgin or not.  David made me laugh, and encouraged me to be more expressive of my feelings. Most importantly, David did not have any sexual hang ups.

I had more in common with an African-American man than I did with any of the Afghan men I dated. So, I took a deep breath – well, to be honest, I took quite a few deep breaths. I looked in the mirror for a very long time, faced my fears, and walked towards David. Eight years later, he and I are still together.

I wish I could write that my parents warmed up to David, but I cannot. Unfortunately, they still disapprove of my life and of me. Yet, through all the challenges that we faced, and through the ups and downs of our relationship, I can honestly admit that these have been the best eight years of my life.

In the end, the heart wants what the heart wants, and I would not do anything differently.

Naheed Elyasi was born in Afghanistan. Like many Afghans, her family fled soon after the invasion by the Soviet Union and immigrated to the US. Ms. Elyasi is currently a Communications and Marketing Executive with over ten years of experience in both the corporate and non-profit sectors. She is also founder of burqa and stilettos, an online community to empower Middle Eastern and South Asian women. Naheed has been a contributing writer for Zeba Magazine, the first lifestyle Magazine for the Afghan Diaspora. Ms. Elyasi’s writings are published in One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature.  Ms. Elyasi is also a member of the Moral Courage Project, which educates young people to challenge intellectual conformity, based at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. She has recently finished her first novel.


11 Comments on “What The Heart Wants”

  1. I would say is a good thing that a man says he is looking for marriage in the beginning and that there are upfront and honest discussions early on about what both of you expect from life and what your likes and dislikes are.

    I would tell any man or woman to avoid anyone who does not do these things if they are looking for marriage.

  2. also tired of being the rebel says:

    going through the very same thing right now with my own “David.” we’re in the process of trying to convince my family to join us on our path forward and it’s not promising, yet we retain hope. i wonder if we are doing damage to our relationship as we compromise to try to please them, when they may never BE pleased. do you have any advice on that balance?

    thanks for sharing your story.

    • Tired of being the rebel – The funny thing with life is that when you let go of trying so hard to win other peoples (including family) approval and acceptance, it usually comes.

      They may never be pleased and I know, from experience, that it takes a toll on you and your relationship.

      My suggestion is to live your life by example. If they refuse to come around, it’s their problem and issue.

      I’m not sure what your compromises are, but you and your “David” have to stay true to yourselves and your relationship.

      After being with David for 8 years, and we’re not married, my parents have come around and completely accepted him. They talk to him on the phone, buying him xmas gifts, etc. It’s just so funny and surreal to watch all this happen, but people are capable of change, of opening their hearts and minds.

      Live your life is my advice!

  3. Tired of feeling alone says:

    I connected to this story immensely. My “David” took the Shahadah, but my parents are still refusing to acknowledge him; they don’t think the Kazi that he took the Shahadah with is “a real imam”. We’re moving forward, but it’s been incredibly painful. It warms my heart to know that I’m not alone in this.

  4. I’ve raised Afghan children, and the biggest issue for me was always having to stress conformity at the expense of the best parts of their personalities. I know that your decisions have not been easy ones, but I’m so glad that you found someone!

  5. Bosnia says:

    LoveinshAllah, I thought this is a website where Muslims can share their opinions. Unfortunately if we don’t have the same view, you delete the comments? How is this going to help people find love??
    I would like to hear the opinion from practicing Muslim’s as well!

    • Personal attacks on our writers or other commenters will be deleted. If you have a comment or perspective, please share it respectfully. As you can see from the posts, we make an effort to include a broad spectrum of voices from Muslim women and men who consider themselves orthodox, cultural or secular. Thank you.

  6. Rabiya says:

    I feel like this post has more to do with culture issues than religion.

  7. not sure who i am anymore says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Im almost 27 and not married, and this doesn’t sit well with my Pakistani parents either. I love to work, travel, spend time with friends (guys and girls), and overall just want to have a happy life. I also have a “David” who’s agnostic but comes from a Hindu Indian family. He’s exactly as you described your “David” to be – treats me with such love and respect , I think I’ve been crazy all this time thinking there was something wrong with me bc of how my family and culture made me feel about the choices i make/have made.
    Sigh it’s really hard to find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, but it’s even harder knowing that there’s someone there that you know you could spend the rest of your Life with but cannot marry them. I just hope and pray for the best.

  8. I’m happy to report that my story has a different ending. My parents have finally seen the light and have accepted David as part of our family. They even bought him a Christmas gift. And you know what? Even though it took a little time, everyone is happy, loving and accepting now. Life is too short to hold on to grudges, to have too much pride and bitterness. Live, laugh and look for peace and joy.