It begins by walking into a room filled with men. In a room of salah, I avoid eye contact with the ones that’ll see me as impure if I look their way. I head to the back of the room, where the women sit, waiting for prayer. So few of us that there is room to sit against the wall.
On the days she is there, I find a space next to her. Nonchalantly, we sit beside each other, but my heart is beating so loudly I’m afraid she can hear it over the khutbah. I’m chastising myself for not being able to focus on the khateeb’s words — I tell myself, next week, I will sit somewhere else. Somewhere I can concentrate.
Right now, though, I just sit.
When the call for prayer is recited, we finally stand. We smile at each other politely and scuffle closer together. In prayer, our shoulders touch as a sign of Islamic unity. I am telling myself that that’s the tingling feeling is just faith epitomizing itself in this moment of Muslim sisterhood, not heat from our bodies colliding into each other.
I raise my hands in takbeer, the beginning of prayer has started and I force myself to focus. Pull my head from thoughts of her to thoughts of God. How lovely is this moment. How pure, how community, how Islam. MashAllah. Let’s begin.
I focus on the words being recited by the Imam. One of the hardest things about salah (not just for me, for everyone), is concentration. The difference, of course, is that I know I can concentrate better when she is not next to me. I’m annoyed at myself for choosing to be beside her when I can choose to be away, although the very thought of her being in the same line of prayer as me makes me heat up anyway.
In ruku, the Imam is quiet. The silence makes my head wander again. Bent down, I smile at the proximity of our feet.
In sujud, when our pinkies accidentally touch, I pull away reflexively. I regret this immediately. Did I pull away too fast? Can she tell I felt something? Or does she think I’m repulsed by her? Next time, I tell myself, I’ll just linger for a while. Nonchalantly.
At a party with my first family at school, I hold a cup with OJ in it. We all dance to Beyoncé, everyone knows all the words. There is a rainbow flag strewn across a bench, and everyone knows each other. The girl I like is not here, she remains a stagnant piece of the prayer room, she has never existed here.
In this room of music and happy, where I am supposed to be okay with myself, I am embarrassed about how Muslims pray, the bending at the waist, the prostration, the robotic simultaneity of those around you. I can see how, for someone who has never seen anything like that before, it looks bizarre. I’m embarrassed by spirituality in the 21st century, especially finding it in a religious community where the majority, upon discovering my sexual identity, would reject me. So when I talk about faith, I talk about it as an aesthetic. Like look, how alternative am I, both Muslim and queer? And, what, totally okay with it? (No, not totally okay with it. Stay up nights worrying about it, which part of who I am do I start giving up?). I am taffy, being pulled in two opposite directions. So I don’t talk about prayer. But if I can’t talk about prayer, I don’t know how to talk about the girl I like. Or, at least, what it is I like about being next to her in prayer.
But still, in my circle of queer friends, I am also known as the Muslim one. I like falafel and shisha; I have a weird outlook on alcohol and sex, and I remain in the closet with my parents.
Someone brings up the “Jesus-lover” that was preaching hate to the gays in our school’s courtyard today. Said what we had all heard thousands of times before, using words like “lifestyle choice” and “hell” and “sin.” I rolled my eyes, forcing laughter. I’ve heard these words come out of the mouths of my loved ones, Imams, khateebs, friends — almost everyone I have prayed with or beside. I don’t mention this at the party, just laugh at the friend imitating Jesus-lover along with the rest of my friends.
At parties, I don’t like to bring up my personal issues. Just gets the mood down.
Disclaimer: The name Huda Ghassan is a pseudonym. The author of this piece wishes to keep their identity private for fear of persecution because of their sexual identity.