The following is excerpted from How to Be a Muslim: An American Story by Haroon Moghul. The book, published this year by Beacon Press, is the basis for the author's interview with Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.
The first time I tried beer, it was at a bonfire. I’d maneuvered a very large SUV through dense woods, headlights illuminating little besides brush and the haunted darkness beyond. Just when I was about to give up, and fully freak out about how the hell I was going to get out of there, I found a clearing and parked the Toyota my parents had loaned me. At which time I was all but mobbed by fellow students who greeted my newfound liberalism with the enthusiasm evangelists do a convert. Eric, with his Mohawk and long chains, handed me a can and invited me to partake. It was the worst thing I’d ever tasted, up to and including coffee. But I would not spoil the moment, so I discreetly emptied the can out on the ground beside me.
I had so many beers in this fashion that the next day, some students remarked on my stunning tolerance for alcohol. I tried other kinds of alcohol, too. Vodka, once or twice. Or thrice. Okay, more. There was one time, though — we’ll get back to it later — when I had some kind of rum, and I loved it, but of course because I was not supposed to be drinking on that occasion, not just on Islamic or legal but even more purposeful grounds, I never found out what I was drinking. Many things in the world are inseparable from the kinds of people who do them. Opera is for rich old white people. They can keep it. While I continued to try alcohol largely because of the image it projected— sex, parties, not to mention a solid assist if not a slam-dunk over anxiety—there was no desire to smoke, either cigarettes or marijuana. Many of the kids who tried weed joined the laid-back, apathetic, aimless. Once I popped a pill that was some kind of hallucinogen. (I was awfully trusting.) I was terrified the whole night. One friend proposed cocaine. I was not that stupid. But that I was there to be asked—there was a method to my madness. It was not enough to disbelieve. I had to disabuse myself of faith. Mine was very much the atheism of a Sunni Muslim, me disbelieving in God like I’d been taught to practice Islam.
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Not everything was so heavy. Some of the things I did were silly, maybe even endearing. I went to a hockey game in nearby Stafford; that had nothing to do with parental restrictions or religious mandates, mind you — my parents were happy my brother played and I attempted sports — but because of my own timidity. I went out to movies with friends, something withdrawn Haroon would never have done. (Two years earlier, I’d see Star Trek Generations with my mother. We watched Kirk die in a theatre that got shut down soon thereafter, perhaps God’s anger at the cinema for indulging such a disrespectful demise.) I went roller-skating with friends. Because I made friends. I had a life beyond my books, beyond my Nintendo, beyond my room. That life felt limitless at the time.
I even took Peter, a lanky Central European exchange student, to the Friendly’s in Enfield for a greasy bacon double cheeseburger, the digestion of which was its own punishment. Peter watched my every bite wordlessly. He hadn’t been raised with much sacredness; he was consequently unable to rebel against anything so great, so horrifying, so consuming as omniscience. I learned a lot more about myself that year, too. For one, part of me was a deeply superficial upperclassman — my parents raised us with a ferocious ambition, to do and conquer all (and I am so much better for it), but in this case it became the conviction that I could date any girl, no matter the alleged distance between her universe and my own. Plus I wanted the validation she provided. In combination: how can Haroon be a loser if he’s dating a cheerleader? But part of me genuinely wanted someone to hold hands with, too. True to the culture that produced Bollywood, I was a soppy romantic at heart. There was more, too.
I was narcissistic: no one should leave me. And terrified: everyone will one day. And certain: I could not live without love. I felt shatteringly alone. Not just empty, but without the music, the clothes, the social circle, I felt excluded, disconnected, seeing shadows on the wall of a cave, life through a glass darkly. That sensation of being adrift while reality passed by just beyond could only be defeated by the immediacy of sensation, and the stronger the better. Tequila that warms the body. Hurtling down a mountain with the sound of snow underboard, balanced precariously, one wrong move and death. Or, in my case, broken wrists and a tailbone. (Not at once.) Dating sisters. (Alas, not at once.) But I’m getting well ahead of myself.
Carla first came to my attention in late March, shortly before graduation, which loomed over us like the end of the world. My good friend Jeremy and I were staying after school, walking the senior hallway when Carla stepped out of a classroom she shouldn’t have been in. She looked right and left, like she was crossing the street, expecting vehicular traffic despite the gleaming linoleum. She waved to him, ignored me, and then proceeded to walk ahead of us. Even Jeremy, ever the embodiment of propriety, muttered an “Oh my goodness” before he noticed my staring and suggested I stop. Now, Jeremy had become a good friend, like James — although where James would always copresent with a Drew Bledsoe jersey and some iteration of a Red Sox cap, Jeremy believed in God and the Yankees. Jeremy was a fervent Catholic, passionate about his religion, yes, but he danced and dated, and that threw me for a loop. When I admitted I was smitten by Carla’s Italian genes, her stonewashed jeans, and her striped green tank top, he was only temporarily at a loss for words. “You like girls?”
My classmates had had me pegged not as homosexual but asexual. Who could blame them? Maybe they guessed Muslims reproduced parthenogenetically. Even if Jeremy didn’t fully believe me, though, he promised to help me make the leap from fantasy to reality.
He was true to his word.
The first job I ever applied for was at a McDonald’s. Had my mom and dad discovered this, they’d have been horrified: my priority should have been school. But I needed to pay for prom, so as I sat in that hard plastic chair, testifying to my aptitude for flipping burgers, guilt wasn’t the first feeling that came to mind. After all, I’d tried to go along. I’d bought into it: We didn’t drink. They did. We didn’t dance. They did. We didn’t date. They did. We did not like girls, never mind need them.
The hint of a future marriage was the most my parents provided me, a feeble hope they cast, infrequently and entirely insufficiently, in my direction, some sense that a part of my life, as yet inconceivable, might theoretically be enriched by companionship. An ironclad Pakistani American Hegelianism. Thesis, antithesis, children. “When you are thirty-five,” they told me, descriptively but also prescriptively, “you’ll get married.”
By then I’d be done with med school, the residency, the fellowship.
Nobody made eye contact during these unbelievably stilted conversations. In this, though, as I later discovered, my parents were unusual. Many South Asian families were far more comfortable with and eager to talk about weddings, if not marriage itself; though I found through future friends that most of their parents believed sexuality should still be channeled through marriage, they did not seem ashamed of the idea of intimacy. Husbands would talk about their regard for their wives. They would plan vacations together. They might hold hands. None of this was modeled for me, though. Like God, I was on my own. Like Him, I decided to create something to keep me company. Should some future historian seek to define American civilization by means of its greatest achievements, she should count among them the coming-of-age movie. I wanted my last months of high school to be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Prom would be my riding the ball from Take Me Home Tonight. There are, after all, different ways of trying to live forever. I looked forward to life nostalgically, as if it were over before it had even begun. “Remember Haroon?” they’d say appreciatively. “Who snuck out to prom?” And with whom!
This imagining a decision as some third party would receive it was the outgrowth of my own youthful isolation, which was in turn the outcome of my sickliness. A fervid imagination created all kinds of scenarios to inhabit, test out, and follow through with, unrealizable possibilities preferable to lived realities. You see, I was always looking for stories without planning to, making them without making a big deal out of them. I understand now that these imaginings were a way out of otherwise indomitable nervousness and trepidation: stories weren’t just a safe harbor from storms at sea but my armor and even my sword, a horse to ride into battle. To believe you can be with any girl in the world is less ridiculous when it’s not you who are attempting to ask her out but someone else.
So somewhere along the way I decided I was a main character on a popular TV show; if I wanted to keep the show going, get advertisers to buy time, keep eyeballs glued to the screen, I’d have to act contrary to my ordinary instincts—to choose the adventure every time. You cannot imagine a more liberating fiction. Out of fantasy came reality.
On a Wednesday in early April, I was excused from school to attend Eid prayers at our West Springfield mosque — it was the second Eid, the festival to mark Abraham’s almost sacrifice of his son. As per every year, we had to wake up painfully early so we’d not get stuck in the Outremer of the Islamic Center’s parking lot and freeze to death walking to the mosque. Perhaps our obstinate Punjabiness demanded we wear shalwar qamis no matter its inappropriateness to the weather, but the effect was always the same. Your body went numb. Then your mind — though that was theology, not meteorology.
If Eid was one thing growing up, it was boring. But I’d get a hundred dollars, two crisp fifty-dollar bills, from my father, folded and passed from him to me like some kind of illicit exchange. My hundred bucks, it should be noted, helped pay for her corsage. Which meant she said yes.
Let me tell you how.
I was home by late afternoon and called Jeremy to find out what happened in school. Not that, as a senior, I really cared. As it turned out, because of Eid I’d missed everything. During eighth-period English, Mr. Malone’s class, Carla had stopped by to deliver a message to her older sister, Maria, a senior like us. To call me crestfallen would have been an understatement. I was devastated. I’d missed seeing Carla? Carla with the wavy hair, which smelled like heaven, underneath which rivers flow? Carla with the mesmerizing sapphire eyes?
“Did she look hot like she always does?” I asked.
Jeremy answered elliptically. “You should ask her out before someone else does.”
Just one thing. How?
I’d never talked to her, never acknowledged her, never so far as I could tell been noticed by her. But so badly did I want her that I thought I could cast my anxiety aside—I would be the superhero of some high school movie franchise. It should’ve been pretty easy too, considering that Maria had already told her of my interest.
Carla’s locker was in the science wing, which is where I’d make the ask—I passed by her every day on the way to AP Biology. Except at the last minute I lost my nerve and hid in an empty classroom. A few minutes later, Carla’s cousin Bradley walked in, thinking I had done the deed and was now celebrating in quiet triumph.
“Did you do it?” he asked, entirely rhetorically. He had a huge grin on his face. Until he saw me look down, ashamed.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he may or may not have said. Bradley had nonverbal ways of communicating. We’d become fast friends because fate had put us together for seven out of eight classes both halves of senior year. On the one occasion we sort-of, kind-of got into a fight, he threw me into a pool. Which was his way of killing me softly, he being exponentially stronger than most of our high school put together.
Disgusted with my spinelessness, Bradley punched me. Hard. And then, to add insult to a gathering upper-body injury, he shoved me out the door. This meant I came into Carla’s line of sight by flying out of an ostensibly vacant classroom, halfway across the hall, and nearly into the wall, before I could skid to any kind of stop. I tried not to think about how this looked. Her friends scattered at the sudden sight of me.
“Hey, Carla . . .” She turned to give me her full attention. That was not helpful either. “I was wondering if you—”
She was remarkably still. She had good posture. Also, while her gaze never faltered, I found it hard to maintain eye contact.
She was formal, but not impolite. She knew what was going to happen. But she made no move to escape what may have been terrifying only for me.
“Would, uh . . . Want to go to the prom?” I’m not sure if I included “with me"; I may have simply inquired into her interest in the function generally.
“I’d love to.” Then without turning her torso, demonstrating outstanding spatial awareness, she used her left hand to slam the locker shut and said she had to get to class.
I like to think I stood there like Peter Parker did when he first became aware of his spidery superpowers. I felt like a new man, who’d shed his skin. (Something spiders do not, for the record, do.) I was taller, better, braver, a cooler shade of brown. Sultan of all I surveyed. (All my subjects were in class, which is where I should’ve been.) High on myself, I spun around to tell Bradley the good news but ran into Mrs. D. of AP Biology instead. She’d been behind me during the entire exchange and was waiting either for the last stragglers to get to class or, more likely, to see how the prom invite worked out for me; it’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole school had followed my recent personal revolution.
Mrs. D. practically gave me a black power salute. “Good work, Haroon!”
By the end of that day, the whole science department had separately congratulated me. I should, in honour of their sympathy and support, apologize for scoring a 2 on the actual AP Biology exam. In my defence, more important things were unfolding. My parents left town two weekends later, and with the phone freed — there were no cell phones back then — Carla and I talked and agreed we were dating. I had no idea what that meant: our two months together were my advanced placement in assimilation. How do dates work? (Ask friends.) Am I allowed to check her out because she’s my girlfriend? (Answer didn’t matter.) Holy crap, she’s going out with me. (Holy crap, she’s going out with me.)
One Saturday night in early May we went out to Friendly’s. Carla’s father told her (he meant me) not to be late. We talked well past her curfew over frothy chocolate milkshakes. She was wearing a blue sweater, though since this was a spring thing, I’m not sure why. She looked wonderful and adorable, so close and yet so far. It took everything in me not to reach for her. But I was mortified she’d reject me.
It didn’t occur to me that, in agreeing to date me, she was at least receptive to me kissing her. We pulled up to her house and I walked her to the side door, under the porch, one of those halfhearted basements, part underground and part above. (I sympathized with this bipolarity.) I hoped her father would not assault us (I meant me), so I tried to stay quiet though the driveway gravel crunched traitorously under my feet. It was the loudest sound I’d ever heard.
When she turned to face me in the pale lamplight of the doorway, ostensibly to say good night, I was so still she had to ask, “Is everything okay?”
I described how I saw our near future playing out. “I wanted to kiss you.”
She went with it. She approached me gingerly, tentatively, the little rocks crackling under her shoes, but when she got close enough, she moved much more deliberately: she closed her eyes and accelerated toward me, tilting her head ever so slightly, so that my lips could find the way to hers all the faster. She got there first. I was kissed. Nothing could’ve prepared me for what it was, the wave of electric joy that began in my mouth and pushed everything else out of me. Rapture had come to lift me up and away.
I kissed her back, and a second later it was over.
She smiled and disappeared into her home.
Did she know I’d never even kissed a girl before?
If only there was a higher power to thank for this fantastic causation: Reject God, get girlfriend. Becoming, simultaneously, the boyfriend. Among my peers, I could now stand at least as tall as I was. I wasn’t just one of them, but a very awesome version of them. Even as I made it up as I went along. Take Confirmation, which I dimly understood to be some kind of Catholic coming-of-age ritual, fast coming up for Carla.
James called the play. On the morning of the big day, we drove separately to a nearby pharmacy. He — not Catholic, but still Christian — approved a greeting card whose message gestured toward faith without collapsing into any explicit organized version of it. We were very proud of ourselves: Protestant New England Patriot helps Muslim atheist honor Catholic ritual. I bought and signed the card, an ecumenical gesture that explains, incidentally, why you’re not reading How to Be an Atheist — for reasons few South Asian parents would like to hear.
James and I parted ways at the pharmacy — it’s not like he was gonna come along, after all — and I made it to Carla’s in great time. (The thought of joining them at church didn’t enter my mind. It’d be another seven years before I’d even work up the courage to attend a Mass.) I knocked on the front door, card behind my back, my intention being to surprise her. She won that battle. She opened the door wearing barely anything at all. It was a slip, I think—diaphanous, waiting for the dress. I’d interrupted her. Not that any part of me was unduly distressed. She was so pleased by the card I handed to her that she gave me what may have been the greatest hug of my life. During which her father passed by in the hallway behind her. I frantically released her even as she held on to me.
He, however, said a casual hello and kept walking, unimpressed by the sight of us in what I’d call inappropriate embrace. He did not return several seconds later with shotgun, ax, or simply his bare hands. (Trust me: Mr. Carla could have killed me with his hand, the other maybe holding a beer, as my life ended in a bloodied teachable moment.) Carla let go; they had to be at church on time, and that was that. I walked across their lawn and into my car, too stunned to speak. My parents told me boys and girls didn’t touch. Shaking hands was taboo; if even tolerated, it was only just that. You were expected to do so in a manner that indicated distaste. This girl’s father, on the other hand, let his daughter hug a boy while wearing what to my eyes was astonishingly little—all things being equal, Muslims have more private parts—and, oh, all this while the family was on their way to church.
Who the hell were these people?
Excerpted from How to Be a Muslim: An American Story by Haroon Moghul (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.