Love in the Time of Islamophobia

Eds. Note: Big love to our Love InshAllah community for four wonderful years! Our site is going on hiatus but we hope to be back with more stories soon. In the meantime, keep telling yours.

Tanzila Ahmed

Tanzila Ahmed

I’ve always been a sucker for a good story – and a happy ending.

Ever enamored by the RomCom, I always pictured myself as the clumsy, awkward but affable protagonist of my own 90 minute, wittily narrated romance. In my story, taking fake boyfriends to Desi weddings, having a hot doctor that stars in telenovelas, and having a back-up baby-daddy for my geriatric uterus were a part of my off-color but meaningful RomCom story. It’s why I loved being a part of the book Love Inshallah, so much – for the first time I saw my narrative side-by-side with 24 other Muslimah’s love stories. It gave me hope that maybe there was a love story for me as well.

I always imagined that the end of the Radical Love column would come when I had fallen in love with the perfect man. In my mind, I thought that after two years of writing about the intersections of grief, love, faith and social justice that I would be able to make someone fall in love with me through my words alone and that closing out my column with a “happily ever after” ending story would make my readers (and myself) content. Finding love was never the point of writing this column – redefining love as a 30-something single Brown Muslimah-American with social justice values was. But I harbored this little romantic hope that with words love could manifest.

This past month I thought I could have been close to that happy ending – I didn’t know if he was the one, but I did know he was the first person in a long time who sparked with me and made my heart skip beats. With him, I saw an ember of potential and in him I found he had many of the qualities of a man we had manifested two years earlier. Instead, I found myself on my doorsteps on Thanksgiving eve with the inevitable, ‘Let’s just be friends’ passing off of each other’s belongings. This time it was a drill I had borrowed from him to make art with. The butterflies in my tummy that I had been feeling all day only quelled when I placed my hand under my sternum and breathed in deep.

“Do you like the bag?” I said, as I handed him back his drill, in a hot pink Victoria Secret bag.

“Yeah. I feel emasculated, but I’m totally fine with that,” he responded dryly. We stood there awkwardly making small talk and avoiding eye contact before he said off-handedly, “You take care of yourself, okay?” and walked back to his car. It had a finality to it. Being friends was never an option.

My co-podcaster Zahra Noorbaksh for the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast insisted that the reason he broke it off so quickly was because he was a Muslim FBI informant who had concluded I was not a threat – just as I had suspected Jay had been.  I would find out later through the grapevine that he had broken things off because it had been too intense too quickly and my written words had been too much for him to handle. Maybe the psychic had been right – maybe men were afraid of me and my energy. I had taken to heart what the psychic had said about how it would feel like family and I would just know – but maybe my instincts had been wrong this time. It had been a short lived romance, at most eight dates, if that. But there’s something about dating in your thirties that makes it different than your twenties – you literally don’t have time for bullshit and games. So when you do find someone you want to make time for, it can’t be frivolous. It’s a terrible feeling to know your gut instinct was mistaken. Heartbreak is one of the few things in life that doesn’t get easier the older you get.

So, I’m sorry loyal readers. I know many of you were rooting for me to find love over the course of this column. I was rooting for myself to find love too. But that was never the point of this column anyway, was it? It has always been about finding my words again after grief had ripped them away from me.

+++

I stuffed my hands deep into my pockets and pulled my jacket closely around me, horribly underdressed. It was biting desert cold of mid-40s degrees and the dry desert wind sliced into your skin. The wind eerily howled, rustling at the desert brush and making the towering sculptures shudder. I was alone, surrounded by stacks of toilet bowls, hanging bowling balls, metal tubes ringing like wind chimes – political, found item sculptures with the names of “Bandwagon” and “Voting Booth”. I had driven alone into the desert, three hours outside of Los Angeles, and well into territory my mother would have said no woman should be alone in. I was an independent, feminist woman who didn’t need a man to escort me on my retreat, I told myself, but yeah, it probably would have been safer.

She would probably have been right, considering I had passed by a home with a confederate flag waving high right before the dirt road turnoff to the outdoor museum featuring Noah Purifuoy’s desert sculptures, just north of Joshua Tree. It was also just days after the Paris bombings. A single, brown-skinned woman traveling alone around conservative white desert people was probably not a good idea.

There was something so unbelievably lonely about being alone in the desert, but I was also inexplicably drawn to this solitude. The desert makes you feel so little and the world so immense. As a southern Californian girl, I found a certain amount of refuge in escaping into the desert. As a writer, I was prone to book cheap hotels for a couple of nights, and drive for a few days to write alone. These trips often came after the end of big life moments – and in this case, I had just quit my day job and was unsure of what was next. This is how I traveled the world, through brinks and words.

When Mom was alive, I took her to Joshua Tree for a day trip, just the two of us. I was probably in my mid-twenties and I wanted her to see some of the world that I had fallen in love with. She had spent the last few years of her life trapped – by her weight, by finances, by work and, probably, by sadness. I often tried to get her out of the house – either to go on walks with me, by giving her books I thought she’d enjoy, or taking her to new places I had discovered. I would even print up blogs that I’d written about my travels, so that she could read about my adventures. It would made her uncomfortable to read about herself in those pages, especially when we had both traveled to Delhi together for my Nani’s funeral. I wasn’t ever sure how she felt about reading my words – until one day, just a few months before she died, my Mom stood at my childhood bedroom door and asked why I wasn’t writing anymore. I was going through a rut and had lost my sense of writing purpose. I didn’t really have a response for her.

She said, “Don’t ever stop writing. It’s important that you don’t ever quit.”

I made a indie rock, desert mix CD for that Joshua Tree road trip with Mom. We drove through the winding roads between the flat yucca filled desert and the boulder strewn canyons. We didn’t talk much, too in awe of the natural beauty around us. She refused to get out of the car for most of the trip, complaining of leg cramps. I do have a picture of her hugging the base of an incredibly tall Joshua Tree. I also have a selfie of us on top of the highest peak in the park, hair whipping our faces and the sun setting in the background. It’s one of the few photos I have of us together.

Now that she’s gone, I wonder what of my life she sees. When I went to the White House a few weeks after her passing, my little sister said that she had a vision that Mom had been with me on that trip. It makes me wonder as I explore the world now, if Mom is still traveling with me. Is she seeing all the things I see? Had she been with me when I went to go see her amnesia ridden father in Kathmandu?  Was she as moved as I was at the first Friday prayer at the Women’s Mosque of America?

After she died, there are only a handful of places I feet her presence. I don’t feel her at her gravesite anymore. I feel her presence at Maghrib and in the accents of Bangla speaking women. I feel her presence every time Casper the black cat comes around my parents’ house begging to be petted and caressed. I feel her presence every time the guava trees in the backyard fruit, and I try to replicate her guava jam recipes.

And of course, I feel her presence every time I write.

+++

It was a strange time to choose to go off the grid. It seemed like Muslim America was under attack – once again. I was tired of the media framing hate crimes against Muslims as if they were a new phenomena. The trip had been planned around a poetry manuscript. I wanted to finish poems and prose I’d written through the past few years of the Ramadan Poem-a-Day project. It felt right to remove myself from the madness of a media saturated world and immerse myself in the self-care of poetry. It was after all, one of my ways of centering myself, & especially needed after having just left my job with no real idea what was next.

Quitting my job was one of the most difficult things I had to do this year. I knew that I was unhappy with where I was. I loved my career as an electoral organizer and had dedicated my life to politically empowering marginalized South Asian and Muslim people. But I was no longer feeling empowered to do the work myself. For the past year my workplace had made me miserable. I had given up poetry, art, and writing – all the things that fulfilled me. I believed passionately in the social justice work that I did, but I just didn’t have the support in my job to do it anymore. I knew I had to leave.

It is hard to do social justice work, and harder still with no one there to care for me – it felt particularly purposeless without Mom there anymore. I ended up finding my purpose in unlikely places. I found it in seeing folks like Alam – an asylum seeker from Bangladesh who wanted to be free to live as a queer man in the US. Seeing him at our phone bank speaking in his bothro Bangla re-inspired me to get out the vote. He was unable to vote and seeking asylum, yet there he was turning out voters using his language of Bangla.

One of my favorite volunteers on our phone banks was a high school hijabi girl named Nadia. She was precocious with this brazen teen girl attitude – the first day she volunteered for us she asked me what I did for a living and threw some major shade when she realized that turning out voters was my full time job. She just didn’t understand how it could be anyone’s chosen career. She eventually became one of our best volunteers and was able to get the most people to commit to voting. After the campaign volunteer party, she asked for a ride home, took a deep breath and launched into her narrative. It was clear that she had practiced what she had wanted to say. She said she had Googled me, and read my stories about how my voter work was so closely tied to my mother. Nadia read herself in my words. She then shared how she had helped her Mom to vote, and how she had found purpose for herself, too. It as inspiring to hear her share her lightbulb moment – and to know I had a small part in it.

I knew that for real radical culture shifts to happen, we need to think beyond voting – we need to tell the counter narratives of our communities and find inspiration in our past radical legacies. We need to disrupt the mainstream media messages and take to the streets to show our solidarity. Yes, we need to win political campaigns, but we also really need to shift hearts and minds. How else are we going to shift culture in all the ways we need it to?

But here we are, the world once again facing an incredible amount of fear mongering and hate directed towards Muslims and brown-skinned people because of the terrorism of a few. It feels like we are hamsters stuck in an infinite wheel of condemnation and hate.

+++

I’ve spent a lot of time since being unemployed staring at the hateful Islamophobic signs I ripped off the Los Angeles freeway overpass. I was preparing to slash them, paste them, and sew them into “political art” for an art show titled “Sharia Revoiced” in October. The hateful signs were laid out on my living room floor. It felt a little silly to attempt to re-appropriate hate into art. But, given the state of Islamophobia in the world, I thought it important to take these signs of hate and spin them with symbols of love.

I worked nonstop for a week before I finished three pieces. I tried to replicate the feeling of bridges and sunsets and fences. I turned the signs into drones, and flowers, and alponas. I tried to make them beautiful. I tried to rebel against the Islamophobic signs with an image that stated I would not be silenced by hatred.

I’ve been thinking a lot about love in the time of Islamophobia. This column has forced me every month to redefine what love means to me in all the definitions of the word. How do we find love and where do we find love?

With the world in turmoil, how do we center love as a value within that madness? If what is at the root of Islamophobia is fear-mongering hate to gain power, wouldn’t the natural opposite of that be love? So how do we love in a way that counters that fear?

How do we find a partner and a lover to love us in that decolonized way that will let us be seen for our whole self? How do we find love again in the shadow of grief? How do we surround ourselves with love from created community and how do we find love within the family dynamics that we often struggle with?

How do we love ourselves? And then, how do we still continue to love ourselves when the world repeatedly is telling us that in the systems of the world, we are unlovable?

Who will tell your story the best, if not you? Who will remember my story, if not me?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions – but these were many of the issues I struggled with and tried to put into words these past two years. It was frightening to put those words out there the way that I did, but I desperately needed to create and see these conversations. I wondered what would happen if we moved to the forefront in sharing our stories.

As American Muslims, as people of color, as women, as artists, as radicals – we are all struggling to find hope in the world right now. Many of you wanted me to write about how we use love as a tool to counter Islamophobia. I’m not there yet. I don’t know how to do that yet.But I do know how to run campaigns, how to tell narratives, how to disrupt mainstream messages, how to create art to push back, how to use humor to shift how people think, how to build communities of like-minded people, how to dialogue, how to think, to express, to speak-out, to feel, to be, to live vulnerably.

Love and to love radically – I haven’t figured that out yet. But I’m trying.

+++

If there’s anything this column has taught me, it’s that love is an expansive word. There are many ways to manifest love, and many ways to re-appropriate and decolonize it. Life and love are challenging and continuous journeys of constant redefinition and reappropriation. Love is not a noun or a goal – it’s a value to be interwoven into everything you do.

At the end of the day, manifest your truth and love radically. Make this world a better place than that which you came into it. And the rest is up to Allah.

Much love to the Love, Inshallah community for allowing me to share my words over the past few years in this space, and lots of love to site editor Ayesha Mattu for having faith in my words and encouraging me to find my writing voice through this Radical Love column. She saw in me things I had no idea I had within myself. Thank you for your patience and believing in me.

Read more columns by Tanzila, here.

Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard and read monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and Radical Love column respectively.  An avid writer,  she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the Love, Inshallah anthology. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.


4 Comments on “Love in the Time of Islamophobia”

  1. Anjo says:

    As a pale-faced G-man of a different persuasion (non-spy, that is), please accept my collective apology that your friend’s theory about boyfriends as spies seemed so credible (and perhaps justifiably so)😦 Thanks for your beautiful writing.

  2. Am says:

    I am so sorry to hear that the site is taking a break. I have found your posts (all of them) helpful, inspiring and able to articulate my feelings in a way I haven’t been able too. Please know that you are loved. Sometimes we forget that. Even us tough, independent Muslimah ladies. Best wishes to all.

  3. Thank you for sharing your deep emotions and experiences, that takes a lot of courage, and I admire and appreciate you for that greatly, wishing you all the best🙂

  4. Sobia says:

    What a beautiful note to end this amazing blog on. Write on, Tanzila! Thank you for capturing in words how so many of us feel, and thank you to the Love Inshallah editors for helping us get to know so many wonderful Muslimah and Muslim voices. I will miss this space greatly.