Writing for Love

huda

When The Love, Inshallah call for submissions found its way into my email inbox, I had just finished the draft of a memoir inspired by strikingly similar ideas. I, too, believed in the power of love stories to challenge stereotypes about Muslim women. At the time, however, I was still fiercely committed to the advice of writing with the door closed. Digging through the memories that became my memoir had been emotionally if not physically volatile. I cringed and shook when I wrote, buried my head in my hands, stopped typing mid-scene only to pick up my journal and rail against myself. “Why are you doing this?” I’d scrawl. “Why write about something with so many social consequences? Can’t you find anything else to write about? Something that would make you proud?”

But year after year, I carried on writing the same story because I couldn’t walk away from it. As a young bride, I had done everything I’d been told and still I’d suffered with so much angst, so much shame for not doing things right enough, and in that angst I had felt alone. There were no stories about American-born women who’d never had a relationship with a man prior to their husbands; women who’d never dated the men they married; women who loved their spouses but didn’t know how to reconcile what they felt with what they encountered in novels, television, and movies. I’d always believed that our narratives impart the most valuable knowledge we have to offer each other, the knowledge of our very selves.

With the exception of my writing group, no one had read my work. Now I panicked at the thought of releasing an excerpt. I imagined all the people in the world I wouldn’t want to read the contents of my eighteen-year-old mind. My parents. My in-laws. My husband’s coworkers. My aunts, uncles, and cousins. My old teachers and professors. The greater Iraqi community. My parents’ friends from the masjid. It was ayb, shameful, to speak of our private lives, and people would see me differently. I’d no longer be the quiet, compliant face behind the good-girl reputation I’d spent years cultivating, but a person who had thoughts and did things—wrong things.

Still the idea of releasing a small piece of my work pulled at me. This was an opportunity to gauge reactions, a preview into what life would look like if I did publish my manuscript. I scrolled through my four hundred page document for a chapter that met two criteria: it could stand alone and it was what I considered safe. I had written several scenes with references to some sort of physical intimacy, and it was those moments on the page that terrified me most. I still hadn’t told my husband into which corners of our personal lives my pen had ventured.

My husband is the most private person I know. The first thing he does when he gets home from work is close all the blinds. He only changes his clothes behind locked doors. He rarely shares anything about his life with his friends or colleagues. He’s not and probably never will be on Facebook. Because of how carefully guarded he is, I knew that I had to have his consent before I submitted anything for publication. I also knew just how much I was asking of him.

My insides churned while my husband read my chapter. I washed dishes and tidied up the kitchen as if I didn’t feel the urge to burst out the door and run rather than face him. When he was done reading, I searched his face for a reaction. He sighed heavily and was quiet for a moment before finding the words to express an ambivalent blessing. He said it was difficult for him to share the details of our lives with others, but that he understood my reasons for doing so and that he didn’t want to stand in my way. His acceptance humbled me so much that I wanted to return his generous gesture with another, to offer not to submit anything at all. But at the same time, I didn’t.

The next day I sat down to send off my submission, but I still couldn’t bring myself to make that final click. “What about your name?” my mind pressed. Yes, this piece was innocent, but the rest of my manuscript wasn’t. Love, Inshallah would be an outing of sorts, and I’d never be able go back and conceal my identity if I released my larger work. I googled name after name, different combinations of my first name with different last names, wrote them down in a notebook to see how they looked in my handwriting. But I didn’t know how to take a name I’d researched online and make it mine. I took a steadying breath, sent my chapter off, and then spent months agonizing over the prospect of my words appearing in print. Maybe kiss. The two words I’d written at the bottom of paragraph about imagining my dream proposal rang in my ears as scandalous. I’d just admitted to this book’s entire readership that I thought about kissing. Muslim girls didn’t think or talk about kissing!

We received our contributor copies shortly before the book’s release, and I was floored. My fellow contributors had risked so much; they had been so unflinchingly honest. Of course, I knew on intellectual level that not all Muslim women lived by the same code of courtship I’d grown up with, but the depth of my surprise only proved what a shallow understanding I had of this truth. I’d expected my fellow contributors to be bound by the same notions of shame, to have held back in the same way I had. Now I felt myself internalizing what it truly means when we make the argument that Muslim women are people just like any other population in the world, making choices, living a vast range of experiences. It means that this same diversity applies to our sexuality and our relationships, as well. It has to.

***

Watch the video to hear Huda talk about her writing process and the power of story.

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place, and Beyond Belief. Other works have recently appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, TV Terror, is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship, a program of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, made possible by the generous support of Cuyahoga County citizens through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.


2 Comments on “Writing for Love”

  1. Being true to ourselves as writers, as storytellers, is difficult at any age- and the risk of exposing our true humanity with all its flaws as women can be overwhelming and painful. I love the honest stories of Muslim women here, like Huda. They inspire me to be true to the writing of my own story too. As a Christian I am continuing to be touched here when I read- so glad I found this blog!

  2. Tara says:

    Dear Huda,
    I really enjoyed reading your work. Your writings are very helpful to many other women who question several aspects of their marriage. It is great to see someone being so honest in this world. You and your husband both are strong to take this risk, and I think you should both know that in doing so you are helping others. So, thank you!