By Deonna Kelli Sayed
“Come to the kitchen,” Ibrahim says. “I want to show you something.” My 13-year-old son towers over me. A thin layer of newly sprouted moustache sits above his lips, which are now shaped in a comical twirl.
“This is Day 1,” he says, as he turns the kitchen faucet to a trickling stream. He opens the valve a bit more.
“And by Day 3….” The water is full speed now, splattering against the dirty dishes in the sink.
He is explaining menstrual flow to me, his mother, and he is proud to know such secrets. This is after he provides a short explanation of why a woman bleeds every month. Don’t tell me why, I challenge him, tell me how she bleeds.
“The thing inside peels off skin….”
“You mean, the lining of the uterus sheds?” I offer.
“Yes! That is it. It sheds,” he says, as he continues narrating the journey of ovum to unfertilized blood flow.
The conversation started when I asked him what he had learned in sex education that day. He is the only Muslim in his mixed gender class, enduring an abstinence only curriculum that promised not to discuss masturbation, sexual intercourse, or homosexuality.
“What is there to talk about then?” I inquired. He shrugged and muttered that one can’t get into too many details as both girls and boys are in the class. And yet, they teach a vagina song, and not one about the penis, because perhaps the vagina is more complicated, he speculated.
It is all complicated, I say, this love and sex business.
“We learned about cervical cancer today,” he tells me. “And condoms. We learned about condoms.” He explains how there are all sorts of condoms, even ones that glow-in-the-dark.
“Why would anyone use a glow-in-the dark condom?” He waits for an answer, which I don’t have. I have no clue why anyone would use a glow-in-the-dark condom. I have no florescent sex stories to share and wouldn’t even if I did.
Ibrahim sits down next to me at the dinning room table where I am writing the story about how I met, married and later divorced his Afghan father. “You know,” he says, “teenagers have the highest condom rate failure.” He provides statistics and anecdotal evidence. I offer that maybe it is because teenagers don’t know how to properly use condoms.
“That,” he pipes in, “and they are more likely than others to have rough sex.”
“Along with rednecks.”
“I’m kidding. My teacher didn’t say that.” He pauses for a minute. “And Middle Easterners. They like to have rough sex, too.”
I am laughing now. “Child, please,” I say. “What makes you think such things?” He had recently returned from two years in the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps puberty stricken Arab kids offered insight I didn’t have. Maybe they had glow-in-the-dark condom stories.
Ibrahim gets up and heads to the bathroom.
I yell from behind him. “So, what you are saying is that middle class white people don’t have rough sex?”
Ibrahim pauses for a second, turns around, and suggests that maybe they don’t. “Those people, they already have everything they need,” he mutters, before closing the bathroom door behind him.
The only sex talk his father has ever had with him about was limited to a standard ten words: Don’t do it. Don’t date. Sex before marriage is forbidden. As if that provides sufficient arsenal against hormones and desire. Such a command stands useless against the eventual love and affection any boy will feel for another human being. His father had more to say about it, of course, yet the words never made it out of his throat. Utterances like “sex” and “dating” are difficult for Muslim fathers, unless there is a just don’t do it attached. You will grow hair in new places, is how some parents talk to their sons about sex, leaving it as something simply manscaped between the legs and under the arms, keeping the rest for the day before the wedding.
The hair part was already covered. Soon after Ibrahim returned to the States, he stated that his underarms were gross. “Can you buy some special scissors?” he asked, special scissors being small enough to trim appropriately. Now, he left trimmings all over the toilet seat.
A year earlier, he called me over Skype all the way from Abu Dhabi, to tell me that he liked a girl. He was giddy when he said this, to let his mother in on his first crush, the palest girl in the classroom. She was German with cloud colored skin and hair with blue dots as eyes. I felt disappointed that she was so white, that his early taste in beauty seemed so basic.
How do you know you like her, I asked?
“Because when I am next to her, I get nervous and I feel something weird in my stomach.” It is just a crush, he reassured me. I sighed in the distance between us, for the weirdness in his stomach would eventual span upwards to his heart and down to other places. There is nothing a mother can do to stop such developments. Life lands in all parts of the body sooner or later.
Now in America, he is in eighth grade. Ibrahim says that he is popular, that the girls think he is exotic. “I am the only Afghan in the school,” he remarks. I see one girl smile and wave at him during a student teacher conference. I worry about these girls, ripe with fresh discover of their sexuality. The Muslim mother in me bares fangs. Stay away from him, I resist hissing.
My son is not like the other kids in his school. He has lived abroad with a politically important father, and he has a poor, white American writer-storyteller as a mother. He is a brown boy with international intrigue. “I think people see me as sophisticated,” he tells me. And, to prove a point, he looks in the mirror to peer at the one long hair growing on the right side of his face. Look, nana, he says, look. I’m finally growing a beard.
A few weeks later, he accompanies me to a story slam, threadbare beard and all, standing almost six feet tall to my five feet four inches. I introduce him as my son. The announcer blushes. “I thought he was your date,” he reveals.
I good-naturedly grimace. “That is weird,” I tease. I am not prepared for this, for my boy towering over me, for people making such mistakes.
Well, the announcer jokes, it is better than if he was your date and I mistook him for you son! We laugh. It is true my boy does not resemble his blond, young looking mother. He looks older than thirteen years old. His skin is the color of coffee with cream while I am skim milk. Ibrahim’s eyes are almond-shaped and brown; mine are wide and green. Our blood, however, is O- negative while everyone else in his father’s family is B+. In this, we are aligned.
The day after he enlightens me on menstrual flow, I tell him it is time for the Islamic version on the matter.
What happens to women while we are on their periods? I ask.
You can’t touch them, Ibrahim says, half-joking.
Wrong! You can touch them. Women don’t have sex during menstruation, but you can touch them. In fact, you are supposed to cuddle with your wife when she is on her period. Prophet Muhammad said so. But, women don’t observe daily prayers while we are on our periods.
O.K., Ibrahim replies.
The only version I have to give him is a straight, married version. I know this is inadequate. My queer Muslim friends need room in this conversation, too. I want him to understand everyone needs a safe space no matter how they love. But I take this one step at a time.
And, do you know about ghusl? Washing after sex? One has to take a full-bodied bath to be clean again. Women take that when she finishes her period. Did you know this?
He shakes his head.
Well, now you do.
My father would never tell these things, he says.
These conversations aren’t always easy for me, I tell him. But we can’t be afraid of life. Then, I frown and comment that it really is standard Islam 101, this sex, blood, and bathing business.
Sex is hard thing for parents to discuss with their kids. To talk about love is almost impossible.
One day, Ibrahim asks me why I only date brown men. I do not know how to answer this because I have not dated men of any shade since his return to the United States. After the marriage ended, I had a white guy fetish, these men who don’t trim their pubes or wash after sex. I grew tired of the way the way their worlds smelled and tasted; like tiny, bland palates.
I do not tell my son any of these things, the excursions that took place in his absence, because it is not yet important. One day, I will say to him how I needed to know that someone found my body beautiful after I took off my hijab. I needed to be touched, to feel like a woman again, after raising five-step kids while his father managed the Arab Spring abroad. One day, but not today, he will know how thirsty a body can become, and how merciful an embrace can wash over bones that hold tired, broken flesh.
Ibrahim tells me that I need to smile more, that he is surprised no one has asked for me. “You are really pretty,” he reveals. A year before, I was the butt of yo momma jokes. Yo momma so fat. Yo momma so ugly. This is the same child who now graciously endures his mother’s self-inflected insecurities about her body; the mother he reassures is not fat but fluffy. He worries that I worry so much. I don’t tell him how afraid I am of heartache; that perhaps my perceived body issues thrive as barriers to love. I worry that he will grow up to seek broken women because he was unable to fix me.
He cranes his neck to read my text messages, this time coming from a brown Muslim man. You have a crush, he teases me. You need to go out more, he tells me. There is no one out there for me, I tell him back. I feel like I am failing him by not having a husband, by not even dating. He has to learn how to negotiate matters of the heart from someone. All I am teaching him is an inefficient manner of loneliness, how to coddle fears into a perfect art.
We talk about what it means to date. It is an odd conversation, for we are both nudging up against the wilderness of desire and longing. He will soon enter high school, where hard-ons, eager young women, and sexy Snapchats will suffice as casual hallway conversation. On my side of the world, I wonder if I will again feel the soft touch of a man’s lips against mine, a desire now stalled since my son returned to the bedroom next to mine. We are poised at our respected life stages to welcome differently weighted versions of love and affection.
Dating, I tell him, holds specific challenges. I bring up temporary marriage, mut’a, which some Muslims in the West use to explore sex and companionship in the lean, long years prior to or outside of marriage. The concept is controversial, but the basic idea of mut’a stipulates a contract of sorts between two consenting individuals to determine the boundaries of time alone together. Mu’ta expects people to have the kind of dialogue that sex education teacher encourages teenagers to have with their future partners.
“Sex is ultimately about responsibility,” I tell Ibrahim. “Responsibility to yourself, the other person, and to society.” There are consequences of irresponsible sex, like STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and weightier matters of the heart. The conversation around temporary marriages allows me drop buzzwords like consent, boundaries, clear expectations in a sexual relationship, a commitment to care for any children conceived.
He turns to me and says, “I think we have more intellectual conversations than most kids my age have with their mothers.”
I tend to agree, I tell him. Thank you thank you thank you God.
“You know, nana,” he says, “you need to smile more. Like, just go into Starbucks and smile. Then someone will ask you out. You need to work on your resting bitch face.” He is giving me dating advice, as if is that simple, as if he knows how these things work. And, one other thing: on the way back from the grocery store, he offers unsolicited advice.
“Maybe men don’t approach you because you are too pretty. Maybe that makes them feel shy.” He says this after a long period of silence, like he put thought into it.
“That is so sweet, Ibrahim,” I thank him. We talk about what it means for a woman to be beautiful, how important appearance is in the long haul of a relationship.
“I’d get tired of looking at someone if she isn’t a nice person,” he surmises. He says this now. Just wait, I think. Just wait until you are a few years older and beautiful, vacuous women wave at you. Muslim men are told to lower in their gazes in such situations. The instructions are clear. But lowering the gaze doesn’t always stave off the hunger. He has my heart and my blood, and he will seek touch like a pilgrim seeks the Divine. When he loves, he will love all the way to his marrow. A mother knows what a mother knows.
Ibrahim sits down, and I look up from my computer where I am writing about loneliness and heartache.
“Yes,” I say.
“How do you know when you are love?”
This is part of the sex education curriculum, to talk about such things. I have to sign a paper indicating that we had this particular conversation.
“Well, umm…it doesn’t always have to do with sex,” I offer.
“I know that. But how do you define love.”
I am prepared to entertain questions about STDs, glow-in-the-dark condoms, even masturbation. Now I am at a loss. I see the irony: I am consumed by the pursuit of something I cannot define for my child.
“Umm…” I pause. I think about this, searching for an inventory of words and phrases. I am a writer. I am supposed to know how to give voice to ethereal ideas.
I think. I wait. I am trying to locate what to say.
“It is an open world concept, like in your video games.” I speculate. “All things are possible, and you have to negotiate all outcomes. It is a type of strategy.”
“What do you mean?” He requires more explanation.
My thumb taps the space bar.
“You know, like when you are about to die and you need a power source?”
“Yes?” Ibrahim leans in.
“Well, love is like that. It is a power boost. An extended life. It isn’t a rescue strategy, just extra padding against the elements of the game.”
He thinks about that for a minute. “How do you know when you fall in love?”
Oh, son, I tell him. You never fall in love. You level up. Love is to life what an Easter Egg is to your game, something coded in the design if you are lucky enough to spot it.
“Listen,” I say. “This is what I think about love. It is being with someone who brings out the best in you, who challenges you not to remain too still. But, love isn’t easy. It is work. You need to pick someone who makes you happy, but someone you can see yourself side-by-side in the suffering. You know, a person who will walk with you to the other side of that. Does that make sense?” I ask.
“I think so,” he says, before adding, “I’m so glad you are my mom and that aren’t afraid to talk to me about these things.”
I inhale. There are so many things we are too scared to define, those unsaid sentences never shared with our lovers, spouses, our children, our hearts. I am reminded how close love and fear reside. One calls for vulnerability while the other demands armor. Yet, the sweet pulp of intimacy arrives when we pierce the sheath. Here are the things I don’t say, not yet: son, do not run from love and messiness.
Don’t block such joys because you are too afraid to embrace them.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is the author of Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks and Spirits (Llewellyn, 2011). Her work is included in the New York Times featured anthology, Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women (Soft Skull Press, 2012). She is an editor of Loveinshallah.com.