Category Archives: Social Commentary

Why don’t people matchmake?

The very word ‘matchmaking’ tends to send people running for cover, whether it be the thought of being set up or setting other people up. In a society where individual choice and autonomy reigns supreme (thank you, modernity), it’s not hard to see why. Many people are fiercely protective of their love lives, resisting any perceived ‘interference’. But is matchmaking really the big nasty it’s made out to be?

The answer is no, it’s not. In fact, it’s all the more necessary and handy for the Muslim diaspora in the West, largely displaced from traditional support systems for finding a partner and swimming in a big sea of ineligible classmates and colleagues. The increase in online marriage sites and Tinder-esque apps reflects the confusing mesh of requirements for love amongst Muslims in the 21st century. We want romance, but we also want commitment. Some of us have families who can find us someone, but we aren’t up for that. Some of us don’t have that option at all, whether it’s because our families are non-Muslim or simply not well-connected. We want ‘organic’ connections, despite knowing that the chances of simply bumping into that special someone are slim to nil. We feel like we know most of the people there are to know, and the people we don’t know…well, we just don’t know them and we aren’t sure how we could go about knowing them.

This is where the third party referral system can step in. I call it referral rather than recommendation because I know the very idea of vouching for a person’s character puts people off matchmaking entirely. They worry that if it doesn’t work out, they’ll somehow be held responsible. They feel like they’re just not qualified to make an assessment as to the compatibility of two people, and feel it would be presumptuous of them to even try.

But what are we really doing when we matchmake? At its simplest, all we’re doing is providing an introduction. Whatever happens from there is completely up to the people in question. Whether it works out or doesn’t is immaterial because we’ve done our part: put two people in contact who wouldn’t have otherwise had the agency or courage to. If I suggest a person talk to another person, I’m not claiming to know that they’re meant to be together. I’m not claiming that it even has a high chance of working out. All I’m doing is providing an ‘in’ for them to use as they see fit.

20140916_093802

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should try to set two people up simply because one is a girl and one is a guy. Some thought should be given to whether they’d be compatible on at least a superficial level, but if it’s presumptuous to think two people are compatible, it’s also presumptuous to think two people won’t be compatible. People aren’t linear; they’re jagged and complex and multi-faceted. I’d much rather give two people the chance to discover that they’re not compatible for themselves, rather than simply assume that they’re not and thereby deprive them of even the slightest chance they may have had.

I know, I know, it’s not exactly how many people picture meeting a partner, but I’m pretty sure no one fantasises about meeting a partner on an app either.  At least with the introductory system, someone can at the very least vouch for the fact that someone is who they say they are and isn’t a wanted criminal (in this jurisdiction, if not elsewhere). A guiding hand in the process, however invisible, can also be invaluable. Negotiating everything on our own, as exciting and romantic as it may be, is often a spectacular failure, given the lack of parameters or set expectations. (Oddly enough, many of us seem to prefer the spectacular failures to the perceived rigidity and constraints of letting our family or friends have a hand in selecting a partner.)

The other good thing about matchmaking is that it’s a fairly fluid sort of institution. It ranges from people being set up who don’t know each other at all to people who may have an interest in each other but are too scared or don’t know how to go about pursuing it. In the latter cases, the matchmaker is simply there to facilitate the interest. This scenario is a lot more common than people realise, but it’s fairly obvious why it happens: it’s difficult, scary, risky and potentially darn embarrassing to try to make something happen with someone we barely know, and perhaps even more so when we do know the person.

If we see marriage as a purely individual, private project for each person to determine on their own, we’ll naturally resist both the impulse to suggest people to others or have people suggested to us. Frequently, the desire to respect people’s privacy or not to offend holds us back from inquiring about their lives, their happiness or lack thereof. The burden for seeking assistance usually lies with the person in need of it, but often people are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask. After all, who’d be comfortable to ask someone to help them find a spouse? It implies we’re incapable of doing it ourselves, and no one likes that idea. But if we see marriage as a communal project and the path to it as a communal struggle, we’re a lot more likely to both offer and accept help. People struggling to get meet potential partners often share similar issues: family pressures or constraints, lack of opportunity to widen their circles, lack of time or energy to actively seek it out. If we’re all on the same journey, why not give each other a leg-up and help to spread the love as we go along?

 

Unlocking the mysteries of Muslim profile pictures

I think I’m a bit of a jerk. Almost all of my profile pictures are of me in swanning around in some locale other than my own, and I can’t claim that it’s entirely accidental. After all, how can a social media persona be accidental when it involves such a conscious process of selection and omission? We upload some pictures, but not the ones where we have a double chin. We post ‘intelligent’ or hilarious quotes, but we don’t advertise when we’re sitting around in our pyjamas at 3pm and watching repeat episodes of Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals. (Unless it’s done with hilarious irony, of course.)

Since it seems that many Muslims don’t mix with the opposite sex all that much in a purely social setting, it’s interesting to think about just how much influence a person’s online presence on how they are perceived by the opposite sex, and even more interestingly, how much we consciously tweak our online presence, whether consciously or unconsciously, to influence that perception. But just how successful are these attempts? Let’s take a closer look at the most common Muslim profile picture trends and what social cues they might signal:

1.) The Glam Shot

What we think: ‘Gee whiz, I’m looking great at this wedding/party/bathroom mirror selfie fest! Let’s share this with everyone and watch the mashaAllahs roll in like waves crashing on a sandy shore.’

What he/she think: ‘Errr, I saw you last week and you don’t really look like that. Nice angle and filter though.’

2.) The Spiritual Shot

What we think: ‘This posed photo of my hand clasping some prayer beads really captures my spiritual side.’

What he/she thinks: ‘Wonder who they got to take that one?’

3.) The Experience Shot

What we think: ‘Even though I’m at work every day and at the gym/hanging with my parents/washing my car/giving my cat a bath 99% of the time, these photos of me swanning around Spain perfectly sum up the well-rounded marriage material I am.’

What he/she thinks: ‘How on earth do they afford that?’

4.) The Not-My-Face Shot

What we think: ‘No one’s allowed to see my face except the thousands of people I see every day on the bus and train. Therefore, here’s a photo of a bunch of flowers/a deserted beach.’

What he/she thinks: ‘I can’t remember what you look like, but that’s probably not a good sign.’

5.) The Family Man/Woman Shot

What we think: ‘Once they see how expertly I hold my baby niece, they won’t be able to resist wanting to start a family with me!’

What he/she thinks: ‘What a cute baby…not sure about you though.’

6.) The Come-to-this-event shot

What we think: ‘Not only is this a cool cause, but now you know exactly where to come find me!’

What he/she thinks: ‘Ceebs.’

7.) The I’ve-met-someone-famous shot

What we think: ‘I’m so cool, I’ve met that dude from that YouTube clip!’

What he/she thinks: ‘No idea who that is, but eww, groupie alert.’

8.) The Doing-something-hilarious shot

What we think: ‘See, I can be riding a camel/eating a giant slice of pizza and still look cute!’

What he/she thinks: ‘That pizza sure looks good.’

9.) The Modestly-looking-away shot

What we think: ‘You can see enough of my face against this ocean backdrop to know that I’m cute, but that’s all you’re going to get.’

What he/she thinks: ‘I wonder if they have a breakout on the other side of their face that they’re trying to hide?’

10.) The Very Intellectual quote shot

What we think: ‘I’ll quote X scholar/philosopher and then you’ll know I read books and stuff and then you’ll want to marry me.’

What he/she thinks: ‘Yawn, that book was so 2014.’

I jest, I jest. Obviously I’m hyperbolising, but I do think it’s important to question our intentions and how we craft our social media presence. But I suppose people just spilling their guts without thought can be annoying too. After all, who wants to know that I’ve been cleaning out the bathroom cupboard for several days? (I have. I really have.)

Why I love Serial

If you’ve been living under a rock, welcome back to aboveground living and head straight for your computer. A shower can wait. Your loved ones can wait. You need to listen to Serial right this second.

I’ll make things easy for all you rock-dwellers and give you a quick run-down. On the 13th of January 1999, 17-year-old high school senior Hae Min Lee went missing in Baltimore, Maryland. Her body was found approximately one month later and before long, her ex-boyfriend, 17-year-old Adnan Syed, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, Syed maintains his innocence. One of his staunchest defenders, prominent social commentator and lawyer Rabia Chaudry, contacted This American Life producer Sarah Koenig and asked her to look into the case, and voila, ‘the greatest murder mystery you will ever hear’ (http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/nov/08/serial-review-greatest-murder-mystery-ever-hear), was born in the form of a weekly podcast, Serial.

Serial isn’t just a murder mystery. If it was, it would be easy to file it away with all the Wives with Knives and Kids who Kill episodes I’ve devoured on the Crime Investigation channel. (And there have been a few, I assure you.) There is much to love about Serial’s whodunnit format, but the themes raised each and every episode are far more complex than that of whether Adnan actually killed Hae. The ones I find most compelling are as follows:

1.) Memory is the slipperiest, darndest thing

Recently, I was indulging in a bout of emo nostalgia (as you do when it’s 1am and you’ve had a bit too much coconut jelly). I decided to pick up one of the many diaries I kept as a teenager, expecting it to confirm my suspicion that life peaked at fourteen, but instead it was all doom and gloom and wondering when, if ever, trigonometry would cease to be the bane of my existence. This then begs the obvious question: can we really rely on our own recollection of events?

The short answer is, not really. Of course, our obsessive need to document our comings and goings on social media helps us to trace where and when we were at any given moment, but this murder was committed in 1999, long before Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat came to dominate our lives. Adnan says he just can’t remember exactly what he was doing on January 13, and I’m not convinced that this is in any way indicative of his guilt. If he is innocent, it really was just another ordinary day, which leads me onto my next point.

2.) Everyday life is repetitive is repetitive is repetitive

Adnan continually stresses, as does narrator Sarah Koenig, the apparent ordinariness of January 13, 1999. He went to school, went to track practice, smoked a bit of weed, possibly went to the library and probably went to the mosque at night. (It was Ramadan at the time.) Of course, if Adnan committed the murder, it would’ve made January 13 just a tad out of the ordinary, but if he didn’t, there’s absolutely no reason that he should remember precisely what he was up to.

Everyday life is just so samey. If someone asked me what I did three Mondays ago, I’d know that I went to work, but I really wouldn’t be able to say much more. What did I have for lunch? I have no idea. I probably ordered my favourite Macro Meal special from that annoyingly pricey, delicious vegetarian place, but I could’ve just as easily had some leftover falafel with pickles and garlic sauce. What did I do after work? I probably went to the gym, but it’s a distinct possibility that I decided to go home and watch Wives with Knives on the couch instead. Routine dulls the senses, dulls the memory and dulls the entire human race. One of my biggest fears is to wake up at 40 and not know how I’ve spent the past couple of decades except going to work, heating my leftovers in the work microwave and paying my phone bill. But I suppose it could be worse. I could wake up and find myself incarcerated for the duration of my adult life for a crime I didn’t commit. (That is, if he didn’t commit it, which we haven’t ascertained as of yet.)

3.) Love isn’t worth sneaking around/ lying to everyone you know/killing for

Of course, any sane human being will attest to the last point. You get dumped, punch a few pillows, consume copious amounts of peanut butter with your fingers, pray to Allah for some high-speed pain relief and then, you get over it, secure in the knowledge that no one is worth eating prison food for the rest of your life.

But the other points are more interesting, especially for the purposes of this blog. Adnan is Muslim and of Pakistani background, which the prosecution made a big song and dance over in their case against him. They claimed that because he went against his faith and his community to be with Hae, her subsequently dumping him was all the more enraging. They also claimed that the fact that he went to great lengths to keep the relationship hidden from his family and community indicated that he was a duplicitous, untrustworthy person.

Rabia Chaudry states quite accurately in her excellent Serial blogs (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/splitthemoon/) that hiding a relationship is the standard rather than the exception in many Muslim and immigrant communities. If I had a dollar for every story floating around about couples being ‘caught in the act’, I’d be wearing a solid gold hijab. But is any person worth the trouble of lying to your parents, whispering face-down into your pillow so your siblings don’t hear and concocting complex stories about how you missed your train and the three after that? For Adnan, it certainly wasn’t in more ways than one.

Image from slate.com

Image from slate.com

If I had to give my views on this case, I’d summarise them as such: legally not guilty, factually…well, I’m not so sure. I want to be Team Adnan. I really do. But I’m going to stick to being Team Serial for now.

Why people ignore the obvious (but shouldn’t)

A while back, I wrote an article about the ‘new girl/guy effect’ i.e the phenomenon whereby a person who isn’t known to a certain circle of people enters it and suddenly becomes the talk of the town. In the few months since I wrote that post, I’ve been pondering on the opposite of that: to put it bluntly, ‘the old girl/guy effect’. In nicer, more nuanced terminology, this is the phenomenon whereby people feel that they’re a bit too well-acquainted to ever be anything more than just ‘friends’. Many people have a specific rule that they will not consider someone who’s somewhat part of their social circle, as if the pools of friends and potential partners simply cannot overlap. They might ‘use’ their friends of the opposite sex to get to their friends, but the friends themselves will never be potential spouse material.

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you’d know that I usually try to keep my personal opinions out of the picture. But hey, it is my blog, so once every so often I think I’m entitled to leave them in, and in this case I’ll freely admit that I find the above mentality both puzzling and slightly distasteful. As a lawyer, I’m used to thinking in terms of arguments and counter-arguments, so let’s have a go at the common justifications for this mentality and why I disagree with them:

Argument 1: It’ll be too awkward if things don’t work out, so it’s easier just to not even go there.

Counter-argument: Things are always awkward when they don’t work out with anyone. Plus, there are many bonuses if it actually does work out.

Of all the arguments against considering friends, this one has the most logical validity. I get it; there’s a lot more at stake when we know someone well and interact with them socially than when we don’t know them from a bar of soap. We can’t just walk away if things don’t work out because it’s highly likely that we’ll have to see them again and again and again…and maybe even again.

But getting to know anyone at all requires at least some point of intersection. At least with friends we have an easy way ‘in’, if not an easy way out. We know a lot of basic facts about them and can vouch for the fact that they aren’t clinically insane. Plus, if things do work out, it’s all the more beautiful: there’s already a closely-knit group of people to provide support, advice and lots of duas for both parties. If it doesn’t work out, the pre-existing friendship may provide grounds for mutual respect long after the romantic ardour cools.

Argument 2: I already know them, so if there was relationship potential I’d have known it long ago.

Counter-argument: How well do you know your ‘friends’ of the opposite sex in any case? Not all that well, perhaps.

We all know that there’s a wide spectrum of practices in relation to male-female interactions amongst Muslims, ranging from people who only interact where necessary to people who are happy to hang out in group settings or even one-on-one for a coffee or an outing. But even amongst the friendliest of the friendlies, how friendly are we talking?

For many of us, there are deeply ingrained sensibilities regarding what we can and can’t talk about with people of the opposite sex. Even amongst people we are reasonably ‘friendly’ with, it’s not very likely that we’ll be touching on (lol) very personal topics such as our family dynamics, our struggles with our nafs and especially not our romantic successes and failures. In effect, this means that we don’t necessarily know our so-called ‘friends’ very well at all. Our interactions are probably in group situations for the most part and not one-on-one, which again limits how well we get to know them. We may know a lot about their hobbies and whether they approved or disapproved of the ‘Happy’ Muslims video, but this barely scratches the surface of who they are, or for that matter, who we are, because they will only know the same of us.

This being the case, it hardly makes sense to relegate someone to the friendzone simply because they’re, well, our ‘friends’. We don’t treat our workmates the same way we treat our siblings, so why do we assume that we know what someone will be like in a relationship just because we are superficially acquainted with them on a social level? I don’t assume I know someone well because I see them at events or have seen some of their posts on Facebook, and I certainly hope they don’t think they know me based on these things either.

Argument 3: There’s no chemistry/spark. That’s why we’re just friends.

Counter-argument: Have you ever even tried to see them in another light? Or are you only looking for ‘love at first sight’? (Rhyme not intended, but meh, it’s there, it can stay there.)

I see the same thing happen again and again: someone will have any number of people of the opposite sex that they interact with regularly and get along with really well, but they’re either too busy pining after someone they barely know or looking for some magical ‘click’ to even notice. They may even lament the lack of ‘available’ people, but they know any number of singles of the opposite sex that they just won’t consider.

The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt. In a romantic context, this means that it’s very difficult to maintain a sense of mystery, a thrill, if we’re interacting with someone on a regular basis. This sense of mystery, that slight distance, is an integral part of what many people deem to be attraction. But if, for example, X is working closely with Y on a project, or they’re part of the same wider social group, they’re likely to see each other first thing in the morning. They’ll see each other grumpy. They’ll see all those Whatsapp messages with the stupid memes and hear all the jokes that don’t quite hit the mark. They’ll see them chowing down their lunch, and we all know that nothing kills romance faster than seeing someone with their mouth full. We just don’t seem to want someone who’s seen us sans mystique, which makes no sense whatsoever; the proximity of married life will very quickly and brutally knock the mystique out of the coolest of customers.

The funny thing is that the very qualities we’re seeking in someone are often the same qualities the people in our direct vicinity possess. Why else would we be part of the same sphere as them? But because they’re right in front of us, we just can’t see them. They remind us too much of our ordinary, everyday lives, and what is love but a yearning for the extraordinary? We want to be transported, inspired. Good old-fashioned conversations just don’t cut it; we want sparks and lightning bolts and all manner of natural phenomena. We don’t take note of the fact that our easy, free-flowing conversations might translate well into a romantic context, and we certainly don’t marvel at their intelligence/good looks/good character because we’ve stopped even noticing these things, if ever we did.

Of course, I’m hardly suggesting that people consider those they find repulsive or unlikeable. But if someone is our friend, how likely is it that we find them repulsive or unlikeable in any case?

Argument 4: I’m just not thinking about marriage right now.

Counter-argument: Okay, but if/when you are, you’ve probably already dismissed your ‘friends’ from the equation because they saw you precisely when you weren’t ready to think about it.

It’s the stuff of many terrible movies: someone ignores their best friend in favour of some out-of-their-league hottie, then realises their friend was the right one all along after falling flat on their face. But many Muslims seem to eschew this kind of Hollywood-esque journey. Once we place someone in one category, we seem to find it very hard to re-categorise. This tends to mean that once someone has been friendzoned, they don’t often escape from its confines. If someone wasn’t ready for marriage and decides they now are, they often feel slightly ashamed of their former self. They feel it’s easier to be with someone who didn’t see them in larvae stage; they only want to be seen as they now are, fully formed.

I don’t buy this at all. If someone has seen us progress along our journey, they ought to respect the path we’ve taken and appreciate how hard we’ve worked on ourselves to get there. We shouldn’t feel ashamed that someone has seen us at our formative stages, nor should that person feel that they have the right to look down upon us because they have. (Besides, when can anyone claim to be fully formed? A line in Shantaram describes it well: ‘The fully mature man has about two seconds left to live’.)

Anyway, that’s that. The reality on the ground means that that if we’re interested in someone and want things to work out, we probably shouldn’t try to use friendship as an ‘in’ unless that friendship is simply a transient pretext to get to the next stage. ‘Stay away, or make it happen right away’ seems to be the order of the day. (Not intended either, but I suppose it’s kinda catchy.)

 

The Muslim Relationship Status Dilemma

I remember seeing an advertisement for a party in first year uni and being slightly scandalised at the time. The rules of the party were that single people were to come in green, maybes in orange and ‘taken’ people in, you guessed it, red. As crass an idea as this is, Muslims could really do with some kind of system for knowing when people are actually single  and looking to get married, and when they’re just not. Instead, people are often forced to ask around, looking for mutual connections to tell them whether the person they’re interested in is already otherwise engaged. (Lame, but I couldn’t resist.)

The problem is that people generally don’t make it known that they’re getting to know someone, at least not initially. This is understandable and perfectly reasonable, because it often goes no further than the getting-to-know-you phase. You don’t want to be telling every Hassan and Hussain when you meet someone for the first time. It’s just not feasible, nor does it serve any real purpose for any of the parties involved.

Let’s say person X is getting to know Y. They could seal the deal within a couple of months, seal the deal in this case meaning progress to an official, publicised engagement. If this happens, X and Y are reasonably safe. It’s unlikely that people will ‘catch’ them in the act of getting to know each other, and even if they do, it doesn’t really matter. Things will progress quickly enough for tongues not to wag or for X and Y to have define their relationship in social terms.

But if there are complications and things don’t progress as quickly, X and Y are in a bit of a bind. Technically, they’re ‘in a relationship’, as the Facebook status goes. But Muslims just don’t utilise the relationship status option on Facebook. In fact, unmarried couples tend to try to keep their relationship secret, or at the very least, an open secret. Their friends and acquaintances might know, but the information doesn’t always trickle out evenly.

This is where things can get really sticky. Some people might know about X and Y’s relationship, some people might not. Z doesn’t happen to know, and develops feelings for one half of the couple in question. Is it Z’s fault? Or the person’s for even talking to Z in the first place? Or can the blame be attributed to this weird state of affairs amongst Muslims, where hearsay has to be used as evidence (a big no-no, as my fellow lawyers can appreciate) and no one wants to actually have the hard conversations because deep down, they’re just a big ball of confusion?

This cuts to the very heart of the problem: people may be keeping their options open. They may be talking to one person without having defined the relationship, and as such they feel like they have license to be talking to other people simultaneously. Even if they’re actually in a relationship with one person, they may be feeling uncertain. This uncertainty combined with the fact that very few people know about the relationship may lead to icky situations, like two people thinking they’re getting to know the same person. (An extreme example, but certainly not unheard of.)

The line between friendships and romantic relationships isn’t always easy to ascertain either. This is a universal issue, but is compounded by the fact that different Muslims have different boundaries when it comes to the opposite sex. This leads to all kinds of weird pseudo-relationships popping up, like guys and girls who are constantly talking but haven’t defined their relationship. Often both people like each other but are afraid to admit it, but sometimes only one person has any kind of romantic interest and the other person is simply enjoying having someone to talk to without the hassle of actually being in a relationship. (Or maybe they just genuinely like talking about photography/philosophy/video games.)

And then there are those who are secretly pining over someone who they know will probably never reciprocate their feelings. They get stuck in a waiting game, hoping the tide will turn but acknowledging that it most likely will not. These people are technically ‘single’, but are about as available as a change room at the Boxing Day Sales. The sad thing is that the object of their affection could actually be in one of those secret relationships mentioned above, which means that their efforts are doomed from the outset and may in fact bring them great embarrassment should word get out. The other common scenario is that the person they like just isn’t looking to get married, and so liking them at the present moment is just a waste of energy.

All of the above scenarios are a result of the lack of transparency around the whole issue of marriage. No one wants to admit that they want to get married for fear of looking ‘desperate’, but nearly everyone does. No one wants to admit that they’ve been in a relationship, but nearly everyone has been. No one wants to be the one to put their heart on the line and have the are-we-just-friends conversation, because they know it’ll be just awful if the answer is yes. (And if you’re afraid to ask, it’s often because you know the answer is ‘yes, we are just friends’ and you don’t want to face up to it.)

I don’t claim to have solutions to any of these issues except to very humbly suggest that personal responsibility is key. Sensitivity to the feelings of others is key. Talking to someone may mean nothing to you, but it could mean the world to them. (On the other hand, assuming every conversation with someone of the opposite sex is romantic in nature is just a recipe for disaster.) A little tact and discretion never goes astray, but excessive secrecy and vagueness can lead to unnecessary complications for all parties concerned. Human dignity should be preserved in all cases, even when you don’t care an iota for the person in question. If you know categorically that you’re not looking to get married, don’t let your guard down with the opposite sex, and if you are looking to get married, make your intentions clear at the earliest opportunity.

Do you consider yourself to be ‘single’? What’s the best way to avoid dilemmas about a relationship status?

 

On Groups, Cliques and Approval Ticks

“As I ran, I thought how I hate any kind of mob- I hate mobs of sports fans, mobs of environmental demonstrators, I even hate mobs of supermodels, that’s how much I hate mobs. I tell you, mankind is bearable only when you get him on his own.”-Steve Toltz

The above is a quote from one of my favourite books, A Fraction of the Whole. (Read it. Now.) While every second line of the book is quote-worthy, this one in particular resonates with me because it aligns with exactly how I feel about the subject of group interaction. Ever since I can remember, I’ve found group interaction tedious and difficult to maintain. I dislike the competitive struggle as to who gets to talk and when. I’m just not good at groups. I’m awful at small-talk and ‘witty’ repartee, and I find that the potential for meaningful discussion  gets lost in a sea of performance and social niceties.

My dislike of group interaction extends to a dislike of groups generally. I know, I know, collective struggles, unity, etc. etc., but I also feel that in groups humans are capable of extreme inhumanity and cruelty due to our tendency to just do whatever the person next to us is doing. This simple, ostensibly harmless premise has resulted in some of the most awful atrocities in history. But for the most part, our tendency to behave like bleeting sheep manifests in less dramatic ways. The most obvious way is the sameness of people within any one group of friends, clique or subculture.

I have a little trick I like to play sometimes when I meet someone new. By picking one arbitrary fact about them, I then try to unravel their ideology and interests base accordingly and see if the picture ‘fits’. To my disappointment, it often does. This is particularly the case when it comes to different groups in the Muslim community. To pick a random example, if someone tells me some innocuous fact such as a penchant for art exhibitions, it often follows that they:

-may be Sufi-inclined

-have a ‘liberal’ attitude to gender interaction

-like socially conscious hip-hop/indie rock

-own a DSLR

These facts are seemingly unrelated, but they form an easily recognisable pattern of social behaviours if examined closely enough. I find it especially interesting how interests intersect with ideology. When did you last meet a ‘Salafi’ who admits to a passion for street art, or a ‘Sufi’ who isn’t into nature and photography? Why aren’t there many (if any) HT members doing their thang at poetry slams? There’s no official code against it, nor is one group of people inherently ‘better’ at a pursuit; again, it’s simply the group effect. Even if people do have an interest contrary to the norm of their group, they tend to keep it on the low-down.

Make no mistake, I’m not attacking anyone’s ideologies or interests. My problem is not with any group; the problem I have is the markers you need to display to be accepted into a group. At times it feels as though people run recruitment drives based on whatever is ‘cool’ in their group. It’s almost like a silent citizenship test. If you want to get into the ‘hipster Muslim’ group, you need to have read Malcolm X’s autobiography and it must have changed your life, dammit! If you want to get in with the MSA peeps, use as many words with the suffix Allah as possible (inshaAllah, mashAllah, subhanAllah) and post about sisterhood/brotherhood. If you want to get in with the ‘conservatives’, ditch the pants and delete all your photos from your profile.

Again, the problem I have with this are not any of these behaviours. I simply resent the idea that people often pick friends based not on character or intellect but on fairly superficial social markers. If we refuse to display these social markers, we may still have a chance of getting into the club, but there’s only so far we can go. We’ll remain forever on the hinterlands because our supply of social capital doesn’t buy us access to the member’s lounge. Of course, no one will admit to this kind of exclusivity, probably because most of the time people don’t even realise that they’re applying this filter to potential friends.

The part I find most fascinating of all (this being primarily a relationships blog, let’s not forget) is that many people try their utmost to choose partners from within whatever group they’re a part of. They confuse shared values and goals, most certainly an important ingredient in a relationship, with shared interests, a much more shallow and temporal measure of compatibility. This leads to people exaggerating or downplaying interests to impress someone they like e.g. if the guy they like is into socially conscious hip-hop, they downplay their secret penchant for trance and exaggerate an interest in Mos Def. It becomes difficult to find the point of intersection between genuine and performed interest, again partly due to the fact that people don’t even realise that they’re marketing themselves to impress a certain someone or even a certain group of people.

The truth is that as much as people profess to being open-minded, we really, really like to be agreed with.( I like it as much as the next person, believe me.) I also recognise the convenience of choosing friends  and partners with similar interests, because that way there’s always someone to go to that exhibition/lecture/concert with. But ultimately, I feel it’s more beneficial to have friends who don’t always agree with us or share our interests. It prevents intellectual and spiritual complacency and forces us to constantly re-examine your own values. It also introduces us to a range of interests outside of whatever is in vogue amongst the group we may be attached to.

Just try it next time. Question your intentions each and every time you post something on Facebook.  Admit to your ‘uncool’ interests alongside your more socially acceptable ones. (Just putting it out there: I like looking at genealogy charts of royal families. Gross, especially because I think royal families are completely useless and redundant, but there it is.) Attend a class by a Shaykh outside of your own circle, even if he seems a bit ‘Salafi’. Don’t assume that someone is deep just because they post some Rumi on Facebook.  Ask yourself,  do I really like spoken word poetry, or am I just playing up a mild interest to try to impress that poetry slam girl?

All this becomes easier as we get older, because with age tends to come a firmer sense of self. It’s also much easier to be the realest version of ourselves when we’re in a relationship, simply because we’re not trying to impress anyone of the opposite sex in the please-marry-me way. But it’s still an ongoing, lifelong process, and one that requires honesty and constant self-reflection.  It’s certainly tempting to edit and tweak yourself and display only your highlights reels (i.e. yourself at your wittiest/most deep and meaningful), but to do so would be to deny the complexity of your identity and experiences.

This post isn’t intended as an attack on anyone’s genuine enjoyment of their interests, nor do I intend to shame anyone for identifying with a group. It’s simply a reminder directed at myself first and foremost: be real. Be sincere. Be you. Step away from the physical and social media crowd and take time out to get to know yourself, because ultimately your worth isn’t derived from your taste in clothing or music, it’s derived from your service to Allah swt and the amazing gifts He has given to you and you alone.

A Night Out, Muslim-style

You walk into the room, slightly apprehensive. Will anyone be there that you know? There’s a registration table, but you ignore it. Registration is one of those things organisations like to do to make them feel, well, organised. Instead of ticking your name off, you make your way to one side of the room or the other, demarcated by sex.

You look around, searching for a familiar face. A few acquaintances come in for the kiss and hug, the awkward, well-meaning chit-chat. ‘How’s work?’ ‘How’s your husband?’ ‘So, when’s your turn?’ (The worst question of all.)

To your relief, you locate your friends and swoop on them eagerly. Much hugging and wild gesticulating ensues. You feel instantly at ease. You guys own the joint. You sit wherever you feel like, comfortable now that you’re safely ensconced in the midst of the group.  This is what you’re here for, after all. To learn, surrounded by people you love and trust. Your love and trust is built on nights like these, on shared scribbles and meaningful glances when the Shaykh says something you find amusing.

You look around the room, and observe the usual suspects:

1.) The Veterans

These people know everyone. They know you too, but only because you see them at every event.

2.) The Semi-Famous ‘Celebs’

These people are known to everyone for writing some article or being on television once. They probably don’t know you, but they’ll pretend to just to be polite. (Alpha people are always polite. It’s key to their networking activities.)

3.) The Newbies

These people are new to the scene, and you feel a strange kind of pity for them in all their starry-eyed, hopeful gazes.They have no idea what they’re in for.

You could observe for longer, but the Shaykh is starting his talk. You concentrate, or try to. There are always distractions at these things. A baby crying, an appealing refreshments table, a guy/girl you’ve been admiring from afar. You soak it up, check your phone occasionally and try not to look to the side of the room where the opposite sex are seated. It’s not the done thing, to allow your gaze to wander. You’re here to learn.

It’s time for a break. You have a laugh with your friends, exclaim over the amazingness of the Shaykh. It starts up again while you’re still in mid-conversation, so you hold the thought for later. You hate Q&A. People never seem to ask questions, just make long-winded statements or disguise personal problems in generalities. Just let the Shaykh speak, you think. The babies are restless now, and so are you.

And then it’s over. People stir as if waking up from a spell and immediately set upon the refreshments table with vigour. Little groups start forming across the room, the gender boundaries relaxing as people mingle over their teas. The unmarried couples come together tentatively, despite the fact that everyone knows who they are. The almost-couples avoid each other’s vicinity, afraid to make the first move, until someone just does it. The unattached people laugh loudly and uninhibitedly. People who know of each other from social media pretend not to know each other here, until someone just blurts it out.

You’re tired now, your head pleasantly buzzing with the noise and the newly gained knowledge. You make your way out of the room slowly-there’s always another goodbye to be said, another cheek to kiss. You walk out with a friend or two, laughing at something silly they did, like not know someone’s name or spill their drink as they were talking to someone ‘important’. Maybe your friend has met an interesting someone. Maybe you have. Maybe neither of you have, but it really doesn’t matter.

This is where you belong. Single, married, divorced, you’re absorbed into the fold, with all its pettiness and squabbles. Because at the heart of it is knowledge, and this is where your heart longs to be, warts and all. This is home.