The Muslim community is incestuous. Not in the literal sense, but as with any small community, there are a myriad of connections between people, tying together friends, acquaintances and often complete strangers. I got thinking about this when I was at an Islamic event recently. I looked around the room, and it suddenly struck me that if romantic interest was a ball of string, half the room would be entangled right this moment, simply due to the amount of people who:
a.) once liked each other
b.) currently like each other
c.) are currently in some sort of a relationship
d.) were once in some sort of a relationship.
This makes things really, really awkward for people in any of those 4 categories. Let’s start by looking at people who once liked each other, as they probably have the least awkward encounters out of the four at Islamic events. So many tentative little overtures are made amongst Muslims that it’s hard to even tell if someone did in fact like you or if they really were just interested in Islamic Spain when they first starting talking to you on Facebook chat. If interest was never overtly declared, both parties can just pretend nothing ever happened. They become just another face in the crowd, albeit a face you once looked out for. If someone else is interested in your former flame, you can easily just act all nonchalant and cool as a cucumber. (This is probably a strong argument in favour of not blabbing to all and sundry if and when you’re interested in someone, like the person I heard of in one Islamic organisation who liked three different people they worked with in turn. Tres messy.)
For people who currently like each other, things are a lot more tense, even when interest hasn’t been formally declared. Especially when interest hasn’t been declared. You start to dissect every interaction, every look exchanged across a lecture theatre. But the unfortunate thing I’ve found about the Muslim community is that often there is more than one person interested in someone at the same time. This is particularly unfortunate when the recipient of such attentions is actually not even single. I’ve seen it happen with disastrous consequences. I’m not advocating for people to let the whole world know as soon as they are getting to know someone, but I do think that if you are in a ‘secret’ relationship you have even more of a responsibility than the average Muslim to keep your distance from people; if they don’t know you’re unavailable, they may just develop an attachment to you without you realising it.
It always fascinates me to watch people at events who are currently in a relationship. (Yes, I’m creepy like that.) Sometimes a lot of people know about it, sometimes it’s very hush-hush, but in either case they have to conduct themselves as if they are mere acquaintances. In some more bohemian Muslim circles couples are free to interact with each other as such, but generally speaking they are expected to observe a level of propriety and discretion. When they hand each other registration forms or pass the orange juice over, anyone observing would think they were no more than ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. This is particularly the case when they are a ‘secret’ couple. I know a lot of these and I find it interesting to see how they handle the tension of being around someone they intend to marry and may like very much and having to barely throw them a second glance. I think knowing that other people are watching them makes them even more distant with each other in public; they are all too aware of the repercussions if they are seen to be too friendly.
The fourth category, people who were once in a relationship, will naturally find it the most awkward to see each other at Islamic events. I know people who will avoid going to specific events because they know their ex will be there, and who can blame them? It’s bad enough having to see them, but they’ll often be accompanied by various family members as well which only compounds the awks. Another bad thing is that because the Muslim community is so small you’ll probably know as soon as they get with someone else, and sometimes you may even know the person they are now with. We’ve all heard of the horror stories of one guy getting to know several girls consecutively, all of whom know each other and may in fact be friends.
Having an ex is especially difficult when you work with them in some volunteering capacity such as on campus or in a community organisation. These types of situations are fairly common, given that a lot of Muslims do meet in this way. Either you both have to man up and continue working together, or one person needs to take the plunge and leave. I’ve seen both scenarios, and it’s always a cautionary tale about mixing (community) work and pleasure. But it’s a catch 22, because if you’re not into the ‘arranged’ marriage scene, your only real remaining option is community work. Tread carefully, folks. That’s all I’ll say!
How do you negotiate the incestuous nature of the Muslim community? Have you ever had awkward encounters of the kind described above? (I know that 99.9% of you have.)