Review number three for the TwitterBooks Project is of the essay collection, Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy.
Twitter Handle: ayesha_mattu
Actual Name: Ayesha Mattu
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: 2-3 months
Book Title: Salaam Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy
Book Format: Library paperback
What I liked: Easy to read, unique content, marginalized voices, multiple perspectives within an identity, groundbreaking, much-needed.
What I didn’t like: Some essays don’t stand well on their own, senior voices missing.
I first heard about Salaam, Love from Beacon Press’s Twitter account. Beacon Press is the indie publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I’m a UU, and Beacon Press has published some cool stuff, such as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, James Baldwin’s Notes from a Native Son, and the Pentagon Papers. I have a lot of respect for Beacon Press, so I keep an eye on their new titles. But what put this book on my TwitterBooks Project list was a twitter pal mentioning Ayesha Mattu, one of Salaam, Love‘s editors, as a #FollowFriday. I began following Mattu on Twitter, and there you have it.
First of all, I don’t think the importance of this book can be overstated. I grew up “orthodox” Muslim which meant a largely segregated upbringing. Also, no one talked about sex except as a negative. There was a disconnect between the sexes – men were a mystery if you were a woman; women were a mystery if you were a man.
In the wider, non-Muslim American world, that disconnect also exists. The difference is non-Muslims talk about sex and relationships all the time, but the conversations are rarely informative or respectful of the human spirit. Still, I believe we’re all getting incrementally better at having useful, open dialogue about sex, gender, and relationships. I haven’t yet read Love, Insha Allah, the book of essays by Muslim women that preceded Salaam Love, but Mattu and co-editor Nura Maznavi are contributing to a healthier environment by bringing us these collections.
All that being said, let’s look at the essays. There are 22 of them, by American Muslim men from many walks of life. My only quibble about the demographics is that the ages of the men seem to go up to ~50. I wonder what my Dad – in his early 60s – would have to say. And what do men in their 70s think about sex?
That quibble aside, the essayists represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. Several writers are gay, and religious practices vary in terms of sects and level of observance. I struggled initially because I grapple with what it means to be a secular Muslim in America, e.g. why would a person convert to Islam, and then be secular about it? I had to suspend my own disbelief, but reading the book was an excellent opportunity to simply listen.
There are good stories here. The book is divided into three parts. Part One centers around men straining against seemingly inescapable family ties. Part Two presents men as they navigate the sticky web of romance on their own. Part Three focuses on men exploring – often with surprise – how they’ve been strengthened by bonds of commitment.
A favorite essay is Alykhan Boolani’s “A Grown-Ass Man,” which features lavender prose while being fun and sarcastic. Boolani shows us just how hard it can be to find a suitable match, whether you’re fishing in a small pool or the open sea. In “A Pair of Photos,” Ahmed Ali Akbar isn’t concerned about his love life – he’s puzzling out what made his parents’ unlikely marriage tick for decades. As he pores over the past, I thought about steadfastness, a familiar word in religious parlance often glossed over when we talk about marrying for love. Ibraham Al-Marashi in “The Other Iran-Iraq War” demonstrates with deft humor how love can work as a muse. In the palpably written “Planet Zero,” John Austin conveys alienation in Japan. And get the Kleenex out for Alan Howard’s “The Promise,” in which it’s not always clear what’s stronger: his faith in Allah or his love for his wife.
The most useful story for me was A. Khan’s “In the Unlikeliest of Places.” I can’t relate much to his account of getting emotionally lost in drink and exciting hookups, but when an encounter shows him it might be possible to live an integrated life in which he doesn’t deny his gay sexuality, his family, or his religion, a chord was struck. I know that need to reconcile all the parts of ones life; but also, he presented one, very clear image of what it can look like to be a secular-yet-believing Muslim in America. As I said earlier, I’ve struggled with that. This essay picked me right up and dropped me off in a place where I no longer doubt this is possible.
Some of the writers are more adept in their use of language and in story-telling. Looking over my reading notes, it’s obvious that the sum of this collection is greater than its parts. The strength of a book like this is that each particular story adds to the narrative, and while I might only re-read seven or eight of these, I wouldn’t remove any of them from the collection. Not everyone’s a writer, but everyone has a story to tell.
The result of this collection is that it doesn’t defy gender and religious stereotypes so much as leave them by the wayside like the unnecessary things they are. While Salaam, Love is groundbreaking for Muslims, I think it’s a service for non-Muslims, as well. People without a Muslim background might have to get over some vocabulary (there’s a handy glossary) that I didn’t think twice about, but in addition to opening up about American Muslim communities, these essayists ultimately give insight into the American male experience of love.