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.
By Ramy Eletreby
Corey’s favorite saying: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
I suppose I should have seen a red flag when he quoted eccentric countercultural figures like Hunter S. Thompson. There was a pulsing rhythm and fearlessness to how he experienced life that was more fast-paced, more spirited, than I was used to.
I was twenty-two years old in 2003, wrapped tightly as a spool of twine. I walked a very straight line. My adventurous side was limited to speeding on the freeway, usually for a few seconds at a time, because I was certain California Highway Patrol was waiting for me one hundred yards ahead. Nor did I carry a surfboard in the back of my truck, unlike almost every other boy in south Orange County. I did not plan my schedule around the tides, because the waves were always too unpredictable, too uncontrollable for me. The ocean view from my parents’ house was enough. I did not need to touch the sand to know the beach was there.
Look, but don’t touch. Self-restraint was what I carried.
I had come out to myself when I was fifteen. Some friends and I had gone to see a new play in downtown LA about homophobia and machismo in Mexican American boxing circles during the 1950s. When a handsome and muscular Latino actor stripped down to nothing and took a shower for five full minutes on stage, I felt all the blood rush to my face. It rushed below my waist, too. My eyes gazed downward, embarrassed to be looking at something so raw and so enticing. I had never seen anything more beautiful, and I knew that I would never be able to look at a man the same way again. Driving home after the performance, I was buzzing. I couldn’t keep to myself what had happened, what seeing that naked man did to me. When I told my friends, they told me that I was probably gay. I immediately burst into tears.
I was a master at suppression. My father was chairman of the local Islamic center and my mother was principal of the Sunday school. My family was a pillar of the community. Everyone knew my parents and, by extension, their children. My parents were good at keeping my sister, my brother, and me on a short leash. They insisted that we apply to colleges in Southern California so we could live at home under their watchful eyes. They didn’t want us to fall prey to the temptations of college. I didn’t pay for my college education, so I attended UC Irvine, my parents’ choice, a twenty-minute ride up Pacific Coast Highway. I never went to parties. I never stayed out past ten o’clock at night, unless I was in rehearsals for a play.
I knew I was privileged. I was the only one of my college circle who had a thirty-five- thousand-dollar salary within weeks of graduation. That was just one of the many perks of my father owning a business. Allah was so generous with me that faith and gratitude were the only things I could give back. I prayed to Allah five times a day and read chapters of the Qur’an almost every night.
I spent years shaming myself and “praying the gay away.” With some tenacity, I was successful at ignoring my desires and diverting that energy into being a better Muslim. Those moments of restriction then became signals to give more praise to Allah. When Allah couldn’t feed the flame, the suppression manifested in compulsive eating and shopping. I was a storm of paisley and chocolate.
Staring at boys at the gym was my treat. I convinced myself that Allah had provided me with eye candy so I could satisfy my urges without crossing any lines. The furtive glances I stole at those surfer boys—white, hairless, perfect—changing in the locker room was Allah granting me pleasure. In secret, of course. I never spoke to anyone. I felt like a creeper. And I was.
When Corey came up to me in the locker room, I thought he was going to confront me. I was sure that he must have seen me staring at him in the mirror. Now he was going to humiliate me and ensure that I never stared at anyone again. Instead, he smiled and invited me to join him in the Jacuzzi and chat because I was “not like the other guys here.” I wasn’t sure what he meant and didn’t know if I should be offended. His pale blue eyes were too gentle for me to be critical of anything he said.
I certainly wasn’t like the other guys there. I was brown, hairy, and chubby. I was twice the size of any of the other boys. Was it my Arabness, my otherness, that intrigued Corey? Was he fetishizing me, as many did after 9/11? Or was it my height, my extra largeness, that caught Corey’s attention? Was he one of those twinks with a Daddy complex? What exactly did he want of me? It would be crazy to think he was interested in anything physical. Gay boys my age, especially the white ones, never showed me any attention.
I don’t remember what Corey and I discussed in the Jacuzzi that first night. All I remember thinking was that this was probably the first boy my own age who’d ever approached me and had a genuine curiosity about me. This beautiful guy was interested in what I had to say. He probably never realized how special he made me feel in that moment. He had no idea that he was the first person who made me feel seen. I remember rushing home afterward to pray to Allah, to express gratitude for bringing Corey into my life. I think I started loving him instantly, from the moment we lowered ourselves into that hot tub. I fell quickly and I fell hard. I was so overcome with feeling that I started unraveling. There are few things as fragile as an untouched heart.
The beginnings of our friendship played out like a John Hughes film: calling each other late at night, writing each other “notes” (texts), hanging out in each other’s bedrooms, meeting each other’s families, driving up and down the coast, finding quiet spots where we’d smoke weed and get high. Every moment we shared together had an underlying current of angst and sexual tension.
Early on, he made it clear that he just wanted to be friends. I didn’t want to admit that the feelings between us flowed in only one direction. He must’ve known that I was secretly infatuated with every particle of his being. The way his hair caught the light, the way his eyes changed color based on the shirt he was wearing, the tattoo on his arm of the Cancer astrological sign.
There’s an interesting shift that can happen when you start loving someone. Suddenly, you forget yourself and take on the interests of the other person. Corey liked to drink, pop pills, and shoot guns.
“That’s what white people do best,” he would say.
He was shocked when I told him I’d never been drunk before. During our first summer together, he took care of that. He invited me over to play poker with his dad, and for every hand dealt, he would pour tequila. His dad chuckled seeing me squirm at every sip. It wasn’t until later, when I was lying facedown on Corey’s bed in a pool of my own vomit, that they stopped to think that maybe I needed some monitoring.
Corey had a locked black box under his bed, which held a sleek, all-black, lightweight Glock pistol. I was all nerves when he showed it to me for the first time. I had never held a gun before, nor had I wanted to. The idea of having something so destructive in my hands was terrifying. When Corey placed it into my shaking hands, I held it like it was the most fragile piece of glass. He assured me that it wasn’t loaded, showing me every nook and cranny, taking it apart and putting it back together again, with great pride. The gleam in his eyes was frightening, but also incredibly sexy.
He took me to a shooting range hidden under the freeway, a place near my home that I’d never known existed. He stood behind me, body pressed against mine, demonstrating how to hold the gun. His arms were lightly wrapped around mine. His hands enclosed my hands holding the gun. His finger rested on my finger, pulling the trigger as we fired my first shot together. I never felt closer to him. Something about guns made him feel like more of a man. He had three straight older brothers and major issues with masculinity. Almost everything he did was an assertion of his manhood. I wanted him to know that he was all the man I ever needed.
We played Led Zeppelin and sang with Bob Dylan. We danced with Walt Whitman, and we partied with Hunter S. Thompson. We spoke of God and his prophets Muhammad and Jesus and Gautama Buddha. Every being worth exalting, we did. With every breath we exhaled together, I fell deeper and deeper. Our minds were connected, and I’m certain that our souls were too. But not our bodies. That was just my secret fantasy.
I never explicitly told him how I felt. Corey would often speak about boys in the gym he found attractive. He usually went for twinks like himself, but a few years younger, around eighteen. To me, they were little boys who hadn’t finished growing. He never looked at me the way he looked at them. He had to know how I felt, but he still wanted to be my friend. I thought I could be happy with that. A platonic friendship was better than not having him in my life at all.
A year after meeting Corey, I had finally moved out of my parents’ house in Orange County and up to LA with some of my best friends from college. My friendship with Corey had made me realize I needed to distance myself physically from my family, to uncover parts of my identity that I’d ignored.
I was out and open with my friends in LA, but donned a mask around family. I’d become an expert at compartmentalizing, separating my identity into distinct parts that never interacted. Like many young gay men dealing with internalized shame, I initially became caught up in a perpetual cycle of partying and first dates. Sometimes, if the sex was good, there would be a second date, and, on extremely rare occasions, a third.
I saw Corey regularly whenever I drove down to OC to see my family. Shortly after I moved, he had a new boyfriend, seventeen-year-old Dave. It always irked me that despite the strong mental connection Corey and I had, despite our long talks about the complexities of religion and politics, he fell for immature teens who did not know much beyond Beyoncé and Britney Spears. His penchant for young femme boys was another way of asserting his masculinity.
I was a witness to Corey’s pill popping. He always carried Valium, and took up to six tablets a day. He said his doctor prescribed them for anxiety, but that was a half-truth. He’d pop three pills with his first cocktail. I never took more than one. He would drive down to Tijuana and buy a hundred tablets in some random pharmacy that he knew well. He once took me with him. I felt uncomfortable scoring illegal pharmaceutical drugs in Mexico. I didn’t understand it. Why couldn’t we smoke weed like we normally did? Marijuana made me feel stimulated and connected. Valium made me groggy and detached.
Corey convinced me to go to Burning Man in 2004. He said he had to see the epicenter of counterculture. I read about the annual weeklong arts festival in the middle of the desert, where people build a temporary community together. Normally, that would be the last place on Earth I’d want to be. But I would have gone to the tundra for him.
On the way to “the Burn” we stopped in San Francisco. Corey wanted to go to the famed City Lights bookstore. City Lights had published many of his favorite Beat works, including Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl,” which we recited countless times while drunk and stoned in his bedroom. I had a surprise for him. I looked up the address of the apartment where Ginsberg was living when he wrote the poem. It was only a few blocks from the bookstore. As we stood outside apartment H, Corey held his palm against the cold gray door and looked down. I heard him sniffling and saw him wipe his eyes. My heart melted—or exploded. I can’t remember which. All I wanted to do was grab him, hold him tight, and tell him that if he let me, I would always be there to do special things like that for him.
I came out to my family after Burning Man. The months following were the worst time of my life. It started when I was cast in a play as a character named Hatam, a young, gay, Muslim, Arab American man who was out to his friends but closeted to his family. Just like me.
The local Muslim community, my community, heard about the gay character and boycotted the production. After that, the Los Angeles Times called me for an interview. When the interviewer asked me how I reconciled doing the play as a Muslim, I responded, “Because I am gay and I am Muslim. I can’t just be part of myself.” That was my coming out. What should have been private became very public.
The morning the article was printed, the news spread across Southern California like one of its raging wildfires. By ten o’clock, the story had been forwarded to my father via e-mail. The national LGBTQ newsmagazine the Advocate called me a day later for another interview. Overnight, I became the poster boy for gay Muslims in the U.S. I felt exposed in the spotlight. The media blitz didn’t last too long, but it reached enough people in my community to humiliate my parents.
“How could you do this to us?”
“Everyone is talking about us and saying shameful things about our son.”
“You’re on a slippery slope and you need to get professional help immediately.”
“Go run to your disgusting friends, who taught you that it was okay to be so filthy.”
I wanted to shut myself off from the world. I wasn’t interested in seeing anyone, especially Corey. I did not expect him to understand how I felt. He came out when he was sixteen, and his parents barely flinched. He brought boyfriends home to meet his family. He had no idea what it was like to have parents tell him he was filthy and disgusting. He had no idea what it was like to have to defend his sanity, or to have his older siblings ask inappropriate questions about his sex life.
One night Corey called while I was having a fight with my brother and sister. It was one o’clock in the morning when he picked me up. He took me down to the beach, and I broke down and cried. I remember telling him how much I hated my family and Allah. I said I was through with Islam. That I could no longer be part of a faith that teaches people to turn on their own flesh and blood. Though he was agnostic, he consoled me. He said that the future was full of possibilities and that one day I might find my way back to Allah. He knew how much I enjoyed being a Muslim and didn’t want me to lose that part of myself.
That was the first and last time he ever held me. I don’t know how long we sat together on the beach. It could’ve been just twenty minutes. It felt like I was in his arms all night.
Four months later, Dave called me. He told me that Corey hadn’t woken up that morning. He had taken a lot of pills the night before and his heart had stopped. I can’t remember the rest of the conversation. It sounded like a joke. Corey was always taking something, and he always bounced back. Why should this time be any different?
It was a punch in the gut. I started kicking and screaming and demanding that Allah apologize for doing something so unimaginable. There was no way Allah would allow me to lose both the love and respect of my family and the only man I ever loved just months apart. He could not be that cruel. All I could think of was that moment Corey had held me on the beach. Why hadn’t I told him that I loved him? Would that have changed anything?
I remember looking at the Zen Wisdom calendar sitting on my bathroom sink, still in disbelief about what I’d been told. That day’s saying was “Sometimes we lose people at a very young age. They are angels on Earth reminding us of impermanence.” Chuckling, fighting back tears, the only thing I remember saying was “He bought one ticket too many, and took his final ride.
A reminder of impermanence is important. But I wish the reminder didn’t have to hurt so much.
It took me a long time to trust Allah after that. To forgive Him for turning my parents and my community against me, for taking Corey, and for turning His back on me. Over the next few years, I stopped fasting during Ramadan and started playing with various states of lucidity. I used marijuana and alcohol mostly, but sometimes harder substances. The ups and downs of a fragile emotional state, with no spiritual anchor, took its toll, and self-medication sometimes felt necessary.
It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I reestablished a spiritual relationship with Allah. It happened one night at the theatre in New York City when I went to see a play called Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, written and performed by Wazina Zondon and Terna Tilley-Gyado. These two Muslim women celebrated being Muslim and homosexual. Their poetic language echoed the poetry of the Qur’an, as if the play had come down from Allah as another revelation. It was the first time I saw a whole gay Muslim person, living happily, balancing both identities, and the multitudes in between, without conflict. My tears flowed and wouldn’t stop.
In the words of one character: “Allah makes Muslims. Allah makes queers. I’ve never felt Islam asks me to be something other than what I am. If Allah is closer than my own jugular vein—Ya Khalaq! Ya Bari! Ya Mussawir!—the source of its blood and beat, how could I despise myself?”
As an applied theater artist and practitioner, I know all about the blurring of the lines between drama and reality, and the power theater possesses to advocate and to liberate. Once again, the theater pushed me to reconceive myself. If my relationship with Allah had been so fraught for years, was there anyone to blame other than myself? Wasn’t it my own anger and my own hurt that kept me away?
Nothing lasts forever, and every being will die. I’m grateful to possess that wisdom now. I wish that, at twenty-four, I’d had the maturity to know how to guard my heart better. I wish I could go back and tell myself to hold onto a piece of it rather than give it all away, especially to someone who couldn’t keep it safe. Today, ten years later, I still carry Corey with me, in whatever is left of my heart. Sometimes it feels like my heart was swallowed with his last batch of pills. Though it was once filled with love, it now sits empty.
But I recognize that I am the only one who stands in the way of my own happiness. I am the only one who can fill my heart with love again. If I learn to love myself more, I will rediscover my capacity to love others.
I need to practice more self-care, to learn healing and forgiveness. I need to recite Allah’s ninety-nine names more. Ya Khalaq (the Creator), Ya Bari (the Maker from Nothing), Ya Mussawir (the Bestower of Forms). When I forget Allah, I forget myself.
Today, I remind myself to count my blessings, to recognize that my parents are still a part of my life, even if they will never see me the way I want them to. I try to practice gratitude, to remember Corey as the gift from Allah that I originally saw him to be. I continue to ask for forgiveness, to cleanse myself of the hurt and anger I have caused others, especially my family.
There is no joy without sorrow. Life is full of oppositions. We ar all large and we contain multitudes. My challenge is to run to Allah when I feel like running away.
Excerpted from Salaam Love