Mohammed Shamma is an Egyptian-American Muslim living in Berkeley, California with his wife Heidi and two children. He says he'll be teaching his children his version of Islam, where it's OK to date and be in sexual relationships. (Tamara Bock)
Mohammed Shamma is an Egyptian-American Muslim living in Berkeley, California with his wife Heidi and two children. He says he’ll be teaching his children his version of Islam, where it’s OK to date and be in sexual relationships. (Photo courtesy of  Tamara Bock)

Stories about Muslim-American men in the media are more likely to be about terrorism threats than love or romance. But a new literary collection by 22 Muslim-American men wants to change that narrative. These writers do this by sharing intimate stories about their love lives.

Ayesha Mattu, an editor here in San Francisco, got the idea after writing her last book, called “Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women.” The book got a lot of media attention – but it also got attention from another group: Muslim-American Men.

“We were receiving emails by men who had read the first book,” says Matthu. “We were being stalked at dinner parties. We were stopped on the streets by our friends and acquaintances saying, ‘Where are our stories?’ ”

Matthu started thinking about the image of Muslim men in the U.S., especially post-9/11, and how it was pretty one-dimensional.

“It’s basically a terrorism frame. It’s the ‘scary Muslim’ frame.”

Matthu’s now trying to change that with her new book, “Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy.”

The collection of stories ranges from candid essays on marriage to quirky stories about the awkwardness of asking a girl out on a date. Mohammed Shamma, a software developer in Berkeley, heard about the call for stories from his wife. He writes about trying to reconcile the Islamic belief of chastity until marriage with the raging hormones of an adolescent boy. That duality came to a head when he was 11 years old, during an innocent game of “Spin the Bottle.”

“There was about four or five of us,” Shamma says. “I was the only Muslim kid. It was the first time I ever kissed a girl. So, but my mom found out and I got the silent treatment for several days. I knew I had to make up for it with a lot of prayer at home.”

Shamma is first-generation Egyptian-American.  He says he was racked with guilt over having kissed a girl: His mom said it was a sin – but that didn’t mean he’d stop either.

“I had to balance this world where I just wanted to be another American boy. And she wanted me to be this model Muslim boy.”

Countering Negative Images

Shamma hopes his story will help counter the negative image of Muslims here, especially Muslims with Middle Eastern-sounding names.

“Not only does having a name like Mohammed make me get stopped at TSA, having a son whose name is Karim who gets stopped when he’s 8 months old, because he’s on a list. That to me is something that needs to change. I don’t need to show my 8-month-old to passport control to say, ‘Look, you don’t need to be worried about this boy.’ ”

Shamma says personal stories like his can show Muslims in a different light and chip away at stereotypes.

“If we’re willing to talk about love, we’re making that step towards that mutual agreement that, ‘Hey, we’re really the same person.’ ”

It’s not just first-generation Muslims that deal with stigma — or the complications that come with love. Stephen Leeper in Oakland also contributed to the book. He is an African-American who was raised Muslim — and that came with its own challenges.

“Because the oppression is doubled. Of being black, and being a Muslim,” says Leeper.

Leeper writes about how it was taboo for him to share his feelings with his family and even some of his ex-girlfriends.

“I was told that I was weak and I was womanly and that I had too many emotions.”

Now Leeper is happily married and living in Oakland.

“By me telling the story in the detail that I tell it, with the amount of vulnerability that I tell it, it helps give permission to young African-American Muslim, and just young African-American men, to feel safe to tell their story.”

Editor Ayesha Mattu says she just opened the door, and hundreds of essays from across the country poured in. Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse religious group in the U.S. Mattu says this diversity is reflected in these love stories.


Shuka Kalantari

Shuka Kalantari is a Bay Area journalist reporting on health, food, culture and immigrant communities in California and internationally. She's reported for Public Radio International’s The World, BBC World News Service’s Outlook, Philosophy Talk, Vice Magazine. Shuka is also a frequent contributor to KQED Public Media. You can follow her @skalantari on Twitter and Instagram.

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