Eds. Note: This is a response piece to “Why I Don’t Date White Men” by columnist Tanzila Ahmed
My 13-year-old son, an Afghan-American, recently commented that his white mother only likes brown men. That is an interesting thing for a son to say about a mother so white that she looks like she poops pumpkin spice. Plus, he hasn’t seen me with any man other than his father. I asked him to clarify, and he said that “as long as I’ve known you – 13 years – most of the people you associate with are not white.”
That observation isn’t exactly true; my son’s maternal grandparents are white, of course. I have several white friends. Yet, his statement was interesting as he is beginning to actively identify as a person of color at the same time his mother is attempting to negotiate the complex realities of being a divorced white Muslim woman looking for love.
What my son doesn’t know is this: I had a white boy fetish after my divorce.
Dear Single Sisters,
Lately, I’ve run into a lot of fabulous, beautiful single women who can’t find someone brave enough to show up for them.
I am one of those women, just like you. We are beautiful, growing in our solitude, and looking for someone fearless and strong enough to rock our world.
Life gets hard over here in the land of no-rocking, so let me tell you something about prayer and loneliness.
I’ve been on my knees. Many times, in fact, with a prayer rug and loneliness spread beneath me. And while bending down on that rug, I’ve wailed something awful. I’ve screamed until I tasted blood in the back of my throat, and blood and salty tears is the most pitiful, foulest drink to swallow. It tastes like decaying flesh. It is death.
Sometimes, it tastes like being born again.
I came across an essay called, “Joy,” from writer Zadie Smith. This was a timely find as I woke up to 2015 with this motto: chase joy! Smith starts the essay highlighting the differences between pleasure and joy, which I agree requires necessary distinction. She suggests that pleasure is comprised of small things. I’ve spent the past two years chasing various sorts of pleasures, some as banal as a good cup of coffee. Other pleasures I’ve sought are better suited for a different sort of essay.
Pleasure come as little morsels: a bite of something delicious, a moment of sexual fulfillment, that feeling when your child says something brilliant. Joy, however, seems organic and somewhat elusive. As Smith writes, “The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?”
But live we must do, and my attempt at chasing joy is partly about being present in the fullness of my life. There is a predicament, however: at times, my life feels quite empty and so devoid of joy that I fear it might be hard to recognize upon arrival.
Back when people called me Her Excellency, I routinely attended gatherings at the home of Bahrain’s First Lady. Cardamom-flavored coffee appeared in demitasse cups. The servers, always women dressed in traditional robes, poured the golden elixir from a gently sloped carafe called a dullah. The women returned at regular intervals with refills until you shook the cup to signify that you wanted no more.
My marriage felt like a fragile container that held the riches of the world, and one that I tilted over when I no longer tasted myself in the swallow.
I asked my husband to marry me while driving on 16th Street in Washington, DC. We had met months earlier in New York City because of landmines; he was an international expert in the removal of bombs buried within the earth. I was twenty-seven years old and lonely in ways that felt flawed and unlovable. This man arrived well-pedigreed with international accolades and a collection of five small children from his first marriage. I felt that he represented my only chance at love, and I am blessed that he turned out to be kind.
Twelve years later, I asked him via email to let me leave.
I became Muslim in my early 20s. During those early years, I would entertain myself on nights when I couldn’t fall asleep by conjuring a story where a mythical creature occupied the rural family cemetery beside my childhood home. This idea actually started with something I dreamt involving an early explorer to America who had lost his way. Somehow, in his travels through out the New World, he slipped through a portal that would later become a traditional grave house over the oldest marked plot.
This creature was a Muslim from some undisclosed foreign land, and he’d fallen through the cracks of time and space while exploring the uncharted territory of early America (where all things were possible, including bending the nature of reality). Occasionally, he would pop into my contemporary world from another dimension.
I’d often find him perched on a high limb of a fragrant and large magnolia tree in the middle of the cemetery. In my story, there were rumors of his existence –like a Bigfoot sometimes spotted by hunters — but he remained an unconfirmed myth. I existed as the only person he trusted.
This imagined character was my attempt to create a narrative that linked my identity as a Muslim to the very different experience of growing up as a Southern Baptist. And as silly as the story felt, it provided one example of how imagination – creative third space — offers the ability to rescript our place in the world.
Alas, my conjuring wasn’t so fantastical. Five hundred years ago, a Muslim’s feet may have touched my ancestral land. His name was Mustafa, and Laila Lalami writes his story in the new novel, The Moor’s Account.
This is a fictional interview with a real Muslim about an incident that actually happened.
Announcer: Muslims across the United States are receiving notices of account closures from their banks. Today, we are speaking with writer Deonna Kelli Sayed, whose account at a North Carolina bank was closed without explanation in 2011. Ms. Sayed, thank you for joining us today. Tell us what happened.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (DKS):
My debit card stopped working on a Wednesday.
The first rejection arrived early in the day from a gas station pump, which had politely advised me to “please see attendant.”
The card then failed at one grocery store after another. I knew the account held money. My local bank had not contacted me about any suspicious or fraudulent activity. There had to be some sort of simple, honest mistake.
I walked into my favorite branch to speak with a customer service rep that I had come to know. Minnie was a pleasantly plump older woman wore shades of polite pastels. When she spoke, words flew from her mouth wide and jovial, in the way you’d expect a Southern woman of a certain age to speak.
We met approximately every four weeks. Each month, I paid our monthly bills from a lump sum automatically transferred from my then-husband’s account at a New York City credit union. I often had to wait at least five business days before the funds appeared. There were some months the transfer stayed missing for a full two weeks.
I cringed as automatic payments were due and groceries needed to be purchased for the five kids under my care. God forbid if a holiday fell on a Monday or Friday. My husband lived in the Middle East. I lived in North Carolina with the kids. Our main bank account resided in New York City.
Two and a half years ago, I left my financially comfortable global marriage for an expired passport and economic uncertainty. It was the saddest and bravest decision I’ve ever made. The US economy teetered in the worst recession since the Great Depression. There was no alimony, and I had not worked in twelve years.
The fear of “what ifs” loomed in monstrous proportions. I had no soft spots to land and no deep-pocketed family members to help me start over. Leaving meant leaping into a terrifying yet potentially poetic abyss.
Marriage had furled me tight. I couldn’t celebrate my complexities, and I longed for a different rapport with my spirituality. I felt like a fat and undesirable failure, and how I experienced my identity within the relationship wasn’t what I wanted to be out in the world.
When you find that you can’t locate yourself in a significant part of your known world, you have a spiritual obligation to make a new map. I jumped wide and fierce into the unseen with no compass.
I started an anonymous, now defunct blog. I had one published book and an anthology essay out in the world, but this secret writing felt unusually invigorating. My hands shook with unspoken truths so badly that I had find release. The words dribbled from my fingers as their own life forms. The writing was raunchy, irreverent, and always deeply personal.
I wrote about everything and everyone, although identities were kept secret. I admitted how I felt undesirable and then documented with questionable discretion the men who proved otherwise. But in those debilitating moments of post-divorce trauma, when nothing seemed to exist except fear and self-loathing, writing offered sanity and empowerment.
Sometimes, the best survival kit is one that includes only hope, prayer, and writing.