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.