I could feel her bare breasts rubbing against my chest.
I could taste her menthol lip balm when we kissed. She could never get the taste of double-apple hookah off her tongue.
She was conscious of her crooked teeth, but I loved her smile. Women don’t understand that their imperfections make them unique.
I ran my hands down her back. So many times I’d fantasized about her at the office. She was a hijabi and had seemed so religious.
I’m a practicing Muslim, too. But here we were.
Even then my excitement was tainted by sharp pangs of guilt.
I wish I could say that it hurt whenever I thought about Allah and the haram we were doing. But that wasn’t it. I knew Allah was forgiving—that helped me justify it. But there was one person who wasn’t forgiving.
How the hell did I get here?
As I write this, the pain, chaos, and euphoria of two years ago are all coming back. I often wonder why I cheated on my wife. Growing up, I was praised for my good character. My mother’s friends adored me and wanted their daughters to marry me. The youth of the community wanted to be like me. Fathers respected me and asked me to counsel their sons.
Would they still if they knew?
Infidelity is an epidemic in American society; the Muslim community is no exception. The practicing Muslim brothers I grew up with were involved in masjid youth activities and loathed anything immoral. Now, in our mid-thirties, 90 percent of my group has had an emotional or physical extramarital affair. Perhaps some of that can be traced to the fact that many of our fathers (including mine) had secret second wives.
I’m not perfect. No one is.
My parents are active, religious pillars of their community. They met in their hometown, Kuala Lumpur, married, and moved to New York to study. That’s where I was born and raised, among immigrants who brought their extremely conservative, cultural understandings of Islam with them. They were terrified of their children becoming “American,” particularly given the country’s loose views on sex. If as a youth you were caught talking to a girl, it was tantamount to having premarital sex.
While I had strong sexual urges, I adhered to my community’s beliefs. But I struggled. As early as third grade, my classmates had boyfriends and girlfriends. By high school, my strength to hold back was waning. I didn’t proactively seek a girlfriend, but it was hard watching everyone else around me partake, including Muslim peers.
I remained committed to never having a girlfriend or committing zina, but I couldn’t contain my sexual urges. I discovered masturbation and porn. You might say a Muslim teen believing that zina is haram while simultaneously being obsessed with porn is a contradiction, but I didn’t know what else to do with my natural urges. I figured porn was the lesser of two evils, but I still had tremendous guilt.
Scarlett caught my eye my first week at Brooklyn College. I had a thing for blondes and she seemed to be the “it girl” on campus. Months later, I heard that she was planning on converting to Islam at the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) Ramadan banquet.
That night, she uttered the shahada onstage. The crowd cheered. Sisters hugged her, brothers—including me—congratulated her. Over the next couple of months, the MSA kids became her new family. I was the MSA treasurer, but it wasn’t until a bunch of us decided to take a road trip to see Dave Chappelle that we connected. She was beautiful, sweet, genuine. She and I participated in group conversations, where I found out about her interests in music, poetry, anthropology, and stand-up.
Over the next couple of months, Scarlett and I became closer. But I didn’t know how to pass the friend zone. I’d spent my life avoiding girls; this was uncharted territory. We gave each other sweet gifts, and had long conversations over the phone, sometimes till the early morning hours. But I was too shy to say anything, too afraid of rejection. I just hoped Allah would provide me an opening if a relationship with her was right for me.
Toward the end of the semester, I poured out my feelings about Scarlett to our mutual friend Asma.
“SubhanAllah. Last night, Scarlett told me she’s in love with you!”Asma exclaimed.
I waited a week before I did anything with this information.
I decided to pass Scarlett a note. “I have something to tell you. Let’s meet at the water fountain in the middle of campus?
That night I said, “Scarlett, I love your personality, I think you have a clean and genuine heart. I think you’d make a great mother and a great wife. You’re beautiful inside and out and my feelings for you have grown to more than friendship. I think you feel the same way. Am I right?”
It made my heart melt when she bit her lip, tried to control her smile, and nodded. I could see the tears of happiness well up in her eyes.
I couldn’t hug her. I didn’t have a ring. I didn’t have the money to marry her. I was in my second year of college. So what now?
We talked all night. Our plan was to wait. Two more years to graduation, and then I’d find a job. No touching until then.
* * *
As we got to know each other better, however, it became clear that we weren’t completely compatible. I was a relaxed slacker; she was anal and organized. I was just getting by academically; she was a straight-A student. She loved anthropology; I was into engineering. I loved hip-hop and spoken word; she loved alternative music and heavy metal.
Because of my inexperience with women, I was insecure. I’d be furious when I saw her having coffee with or learning guitar from a male friend and would accuse her of flirting.
We began to fight. I remember us yelling and cussing in the library. At the park. In the cafeteria. It became more frequent until we were arguing every day.
The bad times were bad, but the good times were really good, so, despite all the fighting, we never wanted to let go.
We’d been together a year and hadn’t yet touched. I still had a year to graduation and then had to convince my parents to let me marry a convert, so there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
One day, a group of us were at her apartment watching a movie. Our hands rested lightly on the armrest between us. Her hand barely caressed mine. That’s as far as we could go in a roomful of MSAers.
As soon as the door closed behind them, we hugged for the first time. Finally. It felt so good.
I kissed her forehead. Then, her cheek.
Before I knew it, we were making out, ferociously kissing, gasping for air. My hands were roaming her body. She put her hands between my legs as I pulled up her shirt and pulled off her bra.
Her roommate’s door flung open and we could hear footsteps coming our way. We frantically put our clothes back on.
“Hey, guys,” said Ruby politely.
“Hey,” I said.
We sat awkwardly as Ruby grabbed a glass of water and returned to her room.
“Do you think she noticed?” I whispered.
“Ummm, I’m not wearing my hijab . . .”
Over the next couple of weeks, we had many physical encounters, including oral sex, but never went all the way. We knew we were approaching zina. After much thought and discussion, we anonymously e-mailed some imams whose opinions we trusted. They agreed with our decision: a secret marriage is better than zina.
In a ceremony at Asma’s house, we eloped for a dowry of $4.
That night, we rented a hotel room with a Jacuzzi.
We prayed two rakat. I opened the Qur’an and, like a miracle, it opened to the ayah forbidding zina. We had made the right decision.
I lost my virginity that night. I’d waited twenty years for this. It’s all I wanted to do for the rest of the weekend. But the few times I approached Scarlett, she stopped me: “Let’s not get carried away.Let’s do other things, too.” I felt embarrassed and rejected.
We had sex several times that weekend. But it was uncomfortable. Like we didn’t fit.
We were married in secret for a year. Publicly we were engaged; privately we met at hotels to have sex.
Eventually, after convincing our parents, we had a small official wedding. It felt good to be able to finally walk down the street and not worry about anyone seeing us. We found a studio in the cheap part of town, excited to start our lives together.
The first night there, we were sitting on our cheap Craigslist couches. I put my arms around her and my hands in her pants.
“HEY!” She jerked away, screaming frantically. “Excuse me! What are you doing?!”
“What? Nothing . . . I guess.” I felt embarrassed and stupid. For the last decade of my life, I’d been waiting to have sex. I’d hardly talked to girls and had a fear of rejection, and here I was being rejected by my own wife. It was the ultimate humiliation.
Scarlett and I loved each other. We talked intimately about our feelings, but her bad experiences with sex before she became Muslim warped her thinking. She was uncomfortable and, in turn, made me uncomfortable. Added to our other incompatibilities, this drove the wedge deeper between us.
Married life was nothing like I thought it would be. What happened to the sex-crazed college kids? We rarely had sex. I reverted to masturbation. I lashed out, belittling her so she’d feel as small as I did after she rejected me.
She lost a drastic amount of weight. She became a slob, clothes and dishes everywhere. I was home most of the time, making my own meals and paying the bills. She went out with her friends, spending thousands of dollars each month on herself. This fed our shouting matches.
We loved each other, but we didn’t like each other. I respected her passion. Her discipline. Her generosity. She was a good person. She knew I was doing everything I could to take care of her. We often said, “I love you, and I want to make this work.” That we’d never found anyone else like each other. Despite the lack of sex, we showed affection through frequent kisses and hugs. But we couldn’t be in a room together for more than a day without a world war breaking out.
For years, I kept thinking, “Is marriage supposed to be like this?” I sought advice from elders in the community, but no one gave me anything concrete. It was always, “Marriage is a struggle, gotta deal with it. It will get better.” But when?
I felt a tremendous amount of injustice. What am I getting from this marriage? My sexual frustration coupled with my humiliation and failure as a man made me tense all the time.
The last straw came six years into our marriage when Scarlett said, “I bought a ticket to California with my friends for my birthday.”
With no consideration, permission, or consultation, she bought the ticket. With my money. And, instead of spending her birthday with her husband, she preferred to spend it with her friends.
That’s when I realized she had no respect for me.
* * *
I worked as a programmer at software companies. I loved poetry and performed at different Muslim conferences. I was getting play from lots of women—Muslim and non-Muslim.
But I had more honor than that. As unsatisfied as I was, I had made a vow. So I resisted their advances for years, coming home to a wife who withheld sex and cursed me out.
I got a programming job at Wells Fargo. They told me there was a Muslim banker there named Bushra. She was the wife of a prominent community member, but I’d never met her.
I was stunned when I did. “That chubby, old guy married . . .HER?” I thought. She was young, vibrant, and very attractive. Even though her teeth were a little crooked, she had a beautiful smile. She knew Scarlett from the masjid, as I knew her husband.
She didn’t seem as conservative as I’d initially thought. She liked the same music as me, which was weird knowing how religious her husband was. She loved poetry and was impressed by mine. She laughed at my jokes. It felt good to be valued like that again.
Often, she’d come in to work flustered, almost in tears. I told myself it was my duty to make sure she was okay. We started chatting online. Eventually, she poured her heart out about her rocky marriage. I told her I understood and that she should end it if she didn’t see a future, or try to save it if she did.
“But you and Scarlett seem so solid . . .” she typed. She was fishing for the real story. I gave it to her.
Over the next couple of months, Bushra and I comforted each other when our spouses weren’t there for us. We gave each other marital advice. Her relationship was unsalvageable by the time we met. I was there to comfort her during her divorce.
My intentions were innocent. Though I was attracted to Bushra, I didn’t want any complications. But I couldn’t help but fantasize about her.
I could feel the same energy coming from Bushra that I had from Scarlett in the past. She acted like a conservative Muslima around everyone else, but around me, she was flirtatious. She liked me.
I could see things evolving to more than a friendship. This worried me. I realized that I needed to make sure that I didn’t lose the woman I loved. Scarlett had started to work on gaining weight, which helped us sexually. I had trained myself not to want her because of her repeated rejections, but that night I forced myself to have sex.
A month later, she interrupted my closed-door poetry writing session.
“Oh my God! Babe, you’re not going to believe this—I’m pregnant!”
We were stunned but hugged each other in happiness.
But I was also nervous. Was I ready to be a father? Were we ready?
Scarlett left for California for two weeks to spend her birthday with her girlfriends.
I was alone.
During those two weeks, Bushra was coy and flirty. I did my best not to participate, but it felt good to be desired.
One night online, I asked, “Why are you doing this?”
I could tell by her pause that she was taken by surprise. “Can’t you just take this how it is?”
“Listen, it seems like you’re attracted to me. I’m attracted to you too. But it can’t go any further.” There was a pause again. “Are you there?”
“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I can’t believe you feel this way about me. I thought it was one-sided. You don’t know how much I needed to hear this in my life right now.”
While ending things was the goal of my conversation, I couldn’t deny the excitement I felt.
I picked up Scarlett that night, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Bushra. The next day, true to her word, Bushra didn’t speak to me.
We did our best to stay away from each other, but working together didn’t help and, as time went on, we got to know each other intimately. She told me how her daddy issues made her search for love in the wrong places, leading to a promiscuous youth. Men always wanted her for her body, and left after they got that. She tried to turn her life around by marrying her husband, a conservative Muslim, but there had never been any sparks there. He couldn’t satisfy her.
She fell for me because I was the only guy in her life who cared about her but didn’t want to get in her pants.
Bushra and I chatted online nightly. Scarlett thought I was catching up on old episodes of Lost. But I had a secret life. Secret profiles, e-mails, codes, texts. Because of my paranoia, we were never even close to getting caught.
One day, Bushra pinged me on chat. “I had a dream about you last night. That you hugged me. It felt so amazing. I have something to ask you . . . could you come over to my apartment and give me a hug? Just one.”
“I can’t. I know myself. I’ll want more.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
I felt bad. I wanted her to know that it wasn’t because I didn’t like her but because it wasn’t the right thing to do.
She was persistent. Each day, she asked, and each day, I rejected her. After a week, I gave in. It was only a hug.
When I parked in her driveway, my heart was racing. The danger of getting caught aroused me.
She opened the door and we embraced. After a couple of minutes, I left.
Over the next couple of weeks, I visited Bushra’s apartment before and after work. We hugged and talked, until one night she cried as I walked to her door to leave.
“I’m sorry. Things are hard for me right now. I feel so alone. And you make me feel good about myself again.”
I wiped the tear from her eye and kissed her on the forehead.Then I kissed her on the lips. We looked each other in the eyes and then kissed for twenty minutes straight. I took off her headscarf and started kissing her neck.
We managed to pull away, and I left her apartment.
The avalanche of guilt almost suffocated me. I had crossed a line.
Bushra now talked about sex all the time. We’d chat dirty at work and about our darkest fantasies on the phone. We’d sneak hugs at work, kisses in the break room, play footsie in meetings. I was never this open with Scarlett. I felt free.
We knew what we were doing was wrong. Several times we wrote each other good-bye letters, but then I’d be back at her apartment. Later, I’d kiss my pregnant wife while she slept.
Something had to give. Allah allows men to take another wife—this had to be the reason. I decided I was going to do this right. Things weren’t working out with Scarlett and I was tired of being the scumbag. I was going to be honest. We were going to do this the halal way.
One day, I took Scarlett to the school across the street. “I have something to tell you.”
“What is it? You’re scaring me.”
Neither of us could look the other in the eye. Maybe she knew what was coming. “Things aren’t working out between us. I don’t want to lose you and the baby. But my needs aren’t being met. I want a second wife.”
Tears started welling in Scarlett’s eyes: “I hate you, motherfucker!”
She darted across the street but I caught her. We fought all the way back to the apartment.
She didn’t come out of our bedroom that night. I texted her telling her we needed space, so I was going to my mother’s house.
I got to Bushra’s apartment as fast as I could, practically breaking down the door. That was the night she took off her shirt and I took off mine.
For the next year and through the birth of my daughter, Bushra and I became closer. She was fine with the idea of being one of two wives. Our plan was to wait till I could win Scarlett over.
Scarlett and I were at each other’s throats, barely having sex, always fighting, and raising an infant at the same time. The wall was riddled with holes. Holes from my fists, holes from throwing the table at the wall, from throwing dishes. But the thought of losing everything
I had built with someone I had loved for so many years hurt.
In a twisted way, I believed that marrying Bushra would allow me to keep Scarlett. Scarlett and I weren’t connecting emotionally because I wasn’t satisfied physically. It wasn’t only physical with Bushra, but she could fulfill my sexual needs and reduce the tension in my first relationship. I thought being with them would make me a better husband to both.
Bushra comforted me, but hiding in the shadows took its toll. She started to threaten me with seeing other men.
I had to make a choice.
Ironically, on the anniversary of the night I had told Scarlett that I loved her, I sat her down again.
“We’ve been trying, but it’s not working.I’m sorry. Let me have a second wife, or I want a divorce.”
Tears dripped down Scarlett’s face. “Fine,” she sobbed. She couldn’t accept a second wife, so she agreed to a divorce.
I was sad, but relieved. This was going to hurt, but it was the right thing to do.
I called one of Scarlett’s friends, Fatima, to our home to mediate my departure. Shortly after Fatima arrived, Scarlett said, “I have something to ask you.”
After a moment of silence, I said, “Well? What?”
“Is anything going on between you and Bushra?”
How the hell did she know? We’d been so careful. But she knew me better than anyone else.
Ashamed, I looked down, slowly nodding yes.
To this day, I’m not sure what came first, the cry of agony or her fists. Before I knew it, I was being slapped from every angle. Punching, kicking, scratching. The emotional scars left from that fight still hurt.
Fatima jumped on Scarlett, trying to hold her back.
“I’M GOING TO KILL YOU! I’M GOING TO GET MY DAD TO KILL YOU!”
After a couple of minutes, she calmed down. I headed for the door. Scarlett grabbed my arms.
Within seconds, Scarlett had crumpled to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. I had never seen her this broken. It hurt to know I had done that to her.
I told Fatima to leave. I picked Scarlett up and hugged her. “I’m sorry. You know I love you. I don’t know where things went wrong. I’ve tried everything with you. For years. Counseling. ‘Faking it till we make it.’ I’ve resisted other girls for years. But you and I, it’s just not . . . fitting. And this . . . just happened.”
Scarlett tried to compose herself. She looked into my eyes and asked, “What happened to you and me? It was supposed to be you and me. Remember?”
That’s when I lost it. This was the Scarlett I fell in love with—the sweet, kind girl who wanted nothing but to be with me.
“You’re going to throw away what we have, what we built, for a girl you barely know?”
I hated myself for hurting both of these women. But I had to make a choice.
Should I pick the woman who seduced a married man? A woman who was struggling with her morality? A woman like me?
Or the woman whose morals I never questioned? A woman who stuck by me for years and who, in spite of the pain and what I did to her, still wanted to work it out? A woman better than me?
The next day, I didn’t go to work. Bushra contacted me online.
“Is everything okay?”
“You told her, didn’t you.”
“Can we not talk about it like this?”
“Just say it. You chose her, didn’t you?”
I paused. Then typed, “It’s not going to work between you and me.”
I could almost see the look on Bushra’s face. The hurt. The selfpity.
She wrote, “See. I told you. They always leave. Even you.”
That was the last time I talked to Bushra and my last day at Wells Fargo. Blocked on Facebook. Unfollowed on Twitter. Chats blocked. Secret e-mails closed. Poetry deleted.
I think about Bushra every day. The smell of double-apple tobacco reminds me of her. I think about the pain I caused her. I wonder if she thinks about me. I’ll never forget her, and I’ll always thank her for filling the cracks of my heart when I needed them to be filled.
But then I step back, and I look at my heart as a whole and I see Scarlett. She is my heart. I made the right decision. I don’t ever want her to go through that pain again.
It scares me how close I got to leaving.
Things aren’t perfect between Scarlett and me, but when we hit rock bottom we realized what we had to lose. We went to counseling, and that has helped. Every time one of us wants to fight for their rights or is upset at what our relationship is missing, we remember how close we came to losing each other, and all of a sudden, we forget what we’re missing and realize what we have. Our life, sexually and emotionally, isn’t perfect, but we try to meet in the middle.
Happy ending? In progress.
Excerpted from "Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy," edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press. All rights reserved.