We started texting during the early months of the pandemic, going back and forth every day for hours. The stay-at-home order created a space for us to get to know each other because neither of us had any other plans.
We built a friendship founded on our love of music. I introduced him to the hopelessly romantic soundtrack of my life: Durand Jones & The Indications, Toro y Moi and the band Whitney. He introduced me to classic Bollywood soundtracks, Tinariwen and the bass-filled tracks of Khruangbin.
He was eccentrically passionate in a way that barely annoyed me and often inspired me. Our banter was only curtailed by bedtimes we grudgingly enforced at 3 a.m., after eight straight hours of texting.
We had met on a dating app for South Asians called Dil Mil. My filters went beyond age and height to exclude all non-Muslim and non-Pakistani men. As a 25-year-old woman who grew up in the Pakistani-Muslim community, I was all too aware of the prohibition on marrying outside of my faith and culture, but my filters were more safeguards against heartbreak than indications of my religious and ethnic preferences. I simply did not want to fall for someone I couldn’t marry (not again, anyway — I had already learned that lesson the hard way).
How a passionate, quirky, ambitious, 30-year-old, Hindu Indian American made it through my filters — whether by technical glitch or an act of God — I’ll never know. All I know is that once he did, I fell deeply in love with him.
He lived in San Francisco while I was quarantining seven hours south. I had already planned to move up north, but Covid and the forest fires delayed those plans. By August, I finally made the move — both to my new home and on him.
He drove two hours to pick me up bearing gag gifts that represented inside jokes we had shared during our two-month texting phase. I already knew everything about this man except his touch, his essence and his voice.
After two months of effortless communication, we approached this meeting desperate to be as perfect in person. The pressure to be nothing less overwhelmed us until he turned some music on. Dre’es’s “Warm” played and everything else fell into place — soon we were laughing like old friends.
We went to the beach and shopped for plants. At his apartment, he made me drinks and dinner. The stove was still on when my favorite Toro y Moi song, “Omaha,” came on. He stopped cooking to deliver a cheesy line that was quickly overshadowed by a passionate kiss. In this pandemic, it was just us, with our favorite music accompanying every moment.
On our fourth date, he transformed his apartment into The Fillmore venue to create a concert at home. He scanned my fake ticket, took my coat, made a gaudy cocktail and ushered me to the dimly lit dance floor where we danced terribly, but always in each other’s arms.
He ended the set with Leon Bridges’s song, “Beyond,” one I had heard many times. He held me tight and whispered, “I was afraid to show you this song, but here it is.”
We swayed slowly as I listened to the lyrics: “I’m scared to death that she might be it … That the love is real, that the shoe might fit …”
I avoided eye contact with him, but I gripped the back of his flannel shirt tighter because I knew what line was coming: “Will she be my wife?”
He wasn’t crazy, and it was not too soon, because I felt the same. After having endured several dead-end relationships with non-Muslims and Muslims alike, here he was at last, the man I was supposed to be with. I knew it was time to have the big conversation with him — the one in which I remind him that I am Muslim.
On our fifth date, we drank white wine on a semi-quiet San Francisco street corner. I asked if he was ready to hear more about my family and religion.
“Yes,” he said.
I said, “Do you understand what it means to be with a Muslim girl?”
He began to ramble about his academic curiosity for the Quran and spirituality, and his eagerness to raise children in an interfaith household.
“If we decide to be together,” I said, “you need to understand that the only way forward is for you to convert. It won’t make things easy, but it will make things possible.”
His answer came too fast for comfort: “I’m game.”
How could he be so certain?
“Sometimes,” he said, “you are willing to change your whole future for one person.”
He and I continued to date for the rest of the year, fleeing from the societal expectations of our families and communities — fleeing, really, from any expectations at all. In our Covid bubble, we said “I love you” too soon, didn’t listen to our friends when they urged us to take it slow and ignored the harsh familial realities ahead of us.
I hadn’t told my mother anything about him, not a word, despite being months into the most consequential romantic relationship of my life. But Thanksgiving was fast approaching, when we each would return to our families.
This love story may have been his and mine, but without my mother’s approval, there would be no path forward. She was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. To expect her to understand how I fell in love with a Hindu would require her to unlearn all the traditions and customs with which she had been raised. I promised myself to be patient with her.
I was scared to raise the subject, but I wanted to share my happiness. With just the two of us in my bedroom, she began complaining about Covid spoiling my marriage prospects, at which point I blurted the truth: I already had met the man of my dreams.
“Who?” she said. “Is he Muslim?”
When I said no, she shrieked.
“Is he Pakistani?”
When I said no, she gasped.
“Can he speak Urdu or Hindi?”
When I said no, she started to cry.
But as I spoke about my relationship with him, and the fact that he had pledged to convert for me, she softened.
“I have never seen you talk about anyone like this,” she said. “I know you’re in love.” With these words of understanding, I saw that her strict framework was ultimately less important than my happiness.
When I told him that my mother knew the truth, he celebrated the momentum this development promised. However, in the coming weeks, he grew anxious that her approval was entirely predicated on him converting.
We each returned home once more for the December holidays, and that’s when I felt the foundation of my relationship with him begin to crack. With every delayed response to my texts, I knew something had changed. And indeed, everything had.
When he told his parents that he was thinking of converting for me, they broke down, crying, begging, pleading with him not to abandon his identity. We were two people who were able to defy our families and lean on serendipitous moments, lucky numbers and astrology to prove we belonged together. But we only searched for signs because we ran out of solutions.
Finally, he called, and we spoke, but it didn’t take long to know where things stood.
“I will never convert to Islam,” he said. “Not nominally, not religiously.”
More quickly than he had declared “I’m game” on that sunny San Francisco afternoon all those months ago, I said, “Then that’s it.”
Many people will never understand the requirements of marrying a Muslim. For me, the rules about marriage are stubborn, and the onus of sacrifice lies with the non-Muslim whose family is presumably more open to the possibility of interfaith relationships. Many will say it’s selfish and incongruous that a non-Muslim must convert for a Muslim. To them I would say I cannot defend the arbitrary limitations of Muslim love because I have been broken by them. I lost the man I thought I would love forever.
For a while I blamed my mother and religion, but it’s hard to know how strong our relationship really was with the music turned off. We loved in a pandemic, which was not the real world. Our romance was insulated from the ordinary conflicts of balancing work, friends and family. We were isolated both by our forbidden love and a global calamity, which surely deepened what we felt for each other. What we had was real, but it wasn’t enough.
I have since watched Muslim friends marry converts. I know it’s possible to share a love so endless that it can overcome these obstacles. But for now, I will keep my filters on.