A FINE BALANCE: THE LIFE OF AN ISLAMIC TEENAGER
BY THANOS MATTHAI
Minhaj Rahman arrives at the frat party with several of his friends. After putting his coat away, he talks to his friends for a little before going to the bar to get a drink.
"Can I get a Coke?" he asks the guy behind the bar. The bartender tells him that the Jack Daniels is running out, but that there's still some left for another rum and coke.
"No, I only want Coke," says Minhaj. The bartender gives him a puzzled look, but obligingly pours him a Coke. Minhaj rejoins his friends who are all embracing their plastic cups of Bud Light. He decides to go watch the "Beirut" game in the next room and passes several couples grinding to Sisqo's "Thong Song." The "Beirut" game becomes boring and he goes back to find his friends completely drunk.
A month later Minhaj returns home during a break from college and its party life and catches up with all his high school friends. While hanging out at a friend's house, they all talk about the people whom they've met at college. Some of Minhaj's friends are in relationships while the rest have "hooked up" with people.
"Hey, Minhaj, how many girls have you hooked up with?" asks one friend chuckling. Minhaj blushes a little and laughs quietly along with his friends.
"You know I'm not allowed to do that," he replies, stating what his friends already know.
Islam is the reason that Minhaj doesn't behave in the same manner as his friends. His parents emigrated from India in 1980; his is the only Muslim family in Wrentham, a wealthy suburb of 10,500 residents outside Boston of which only 196 residents are not white. Always surrounded by people who held beliefs almost directly contrary to his own, Minhaj has had to make tough choices, sometimes forcing him to almost lead two separate lives.
As a Muslim, Minhaj is forbidden from many things that his friends take for granted, such as drinking alcohol, having sex outside of marriage, and even eating pork. If Minhaj eats out with his friends, he usually has to order vegetarian dishes because the meat in most restaurants isn't zabiha : slaughtered in a manner that the Koran, the holy book of Islam, deems halal , or fit for a Muslim to eat. "The nearest halal restaurant to me is a 25 mile drive to either Boston or Providence," he says. When offered a Starburst candy, he declines it, saying that it is haram, or completely forbidden by the Koran, because it contains enzymes and emulsifiers that could have been obtained from pigs.
"Starting from middle school, I was raised to hang out only with Muslims because they were good influences," says Minhaj. "I had no friends in school but I did a lot of stuff with my cousins and people I knew from the mosque." Walking around his room at home, he points to the old history and biology books that he used to read in his free time. "I was a real geek," he says, laughing as he flips through The World's Greatest Cities .
Although initially quiet and not very social, Minhaj became heavily involved with school activities during his junior and senior years. "Minhaj's mother really pushed him to take part in things and to succeed," says his cousin Muneer Ahmed.
According to Minhaj, football and student council were the two activities that really changed him. "The football team wanted me to hang out with them and made me hang out with them," he says as he picks up football and tosses it in the air. With a husky 6 foot 3 inch frame, dark complexion, thick eyebrows, and close-cropped black hair, he was a fierce looking outside linebacker. "Their popularity and the fact I was vice president of the student council really helped me get to know people," he adds. Minhaj was also valedictorian and a member of many service oriented groups like the National Honor Society and the Leo Club, which helped him meet more people.
"Many kids found him interesting because he was so naïve and different from them," says his friend Josh Leventhal. "As they spent more time with him, they began to like him and become friends."
Many people find Minhaj to be a welcome change from the average teenager. "He's so different from my other guy friends because he's not caught up with material things and not obsessed with beer," says Siobhan Howard, one of Minhaj's closest friends. "He's more interested in other things like religion and politics."
"In the beginning of high school, no one had any idea what Islam was," says Minhaj. "Even though nothing bad happened to me after 9/11, I really made it a point to talk about Islam because all people knew about it was what they saw on television."
"Minhaj was much more aware of things outside America because he was a religious minority," says Josh. According to Josh, very few of Minhaj's friends were knowledgeable enough to be concerned about such things and discuss them, so they usually avoided discussions about politics and religion with him.
"I talked about Islam and politics so much that people got sick of it, but I felt I had to give them an accurate picture of what was going on," says Minhaj as he scrolls through the BBC website.
As Minhaj became more social and more involved in school activities, the differences between him and his friends became more apparent. "He had no idea about things that we thought were common knowledge," says Brian Hill, a friend who also became Minhaj's roommate at college. Minhaj was not exposed to the same TV shows, jokes and experiences as his friends, and often found it hard to relate to them. Sheltered, innocent, inexperienced and gullible are some adjectives his friends use to describe him.
"It's almost as if things he couldn't do intrigued him, so he always asked questions about things like sex and being drunk," adds Brian.
More than reveal cultural differences, greater interaction with his friends forced Minhaj to walk a fine line. "He was always motivated to be in the public eye, but this kind of backfired because he became almost too social," says Muneer. Muneer has a good understanding of Muslim teenagers because he studied at a school in Pakistan for one and a half years. According to him, most first generation American Muslims are raised much more strictly than those living in predominantly Muslim countries like Pakistan or Egypt. "Parents are often scared that their kids are going to lose touch with their cultural roots so they give them much less freedom," says Muneer. He continues by telling stories about how many of his friends in Pakistan went to dance clubs, stayed out late and socialized with girls.
"My dad didn't want me to hang out with anyone except Muslims because they could be a bad influence," says Minhaj. "I was raised to never to be friends with girls or even to talk to them unless they were family," he adds.
While the Koran does not explicitly state that interaction with the opposite sex is wrong, it does state that men should not have impure thoughts about women other than their wives. At family functions, men and women are segregated and eat separately. Many traditional Muslims also encourage their children to not be friends with members of the opposite sex, says Muneer.
When asked about simply being friends with girls, Minhaj hesitantly replies that it's okay to be friends. "But I still kind of believe what I was raised to believe," he says. "I don't really know," he adds quickly, a pained expression on his face as he looks away.
Group projects were the initial excuses for staying out late. Then it was hanging out with the guys. "I kind of got used to people drinking at parties, so I went to them sometimes," he says. But according to his friends, at parties he would only stop by for five minutes to say hello to people.
Minhaj eventually told his mother that he spent time with girls. "She was ticked off at first, but then she became okay with it because she knew that I wouldn't do anything like date or have sex, which would violate Islamic principles," he says.
"I don't even know if my dad knows," he says with a faraway expression. "I didn't say anything to him because he's very traditional."
Then there was the one party that changed everything. "I stopped by this one party and Jenna, one of my best friends was really drunk," says Minhaj as he remembers the evening. Jenna insisted that he have a sip from her cup, saying that it was only Sprite. Minhaj spit it out when he realized that the cup also had some alcohol (he would later find out it was vodka) in it.
"He got so angry that he started yelling at Jenna and pushed her over," says Siobhan. "Jenna's boyfriend wanted to start a fight with Minhaj, but people broke it up."
"That really changed my outlook on things," says Minhaj. "That one of my best friends could do something like that knowing full well that I couldn't drink alcohol." Jenna apologized repeatedly, but it took almost a year and a half for Minhaj to finally forgive her.
"When I look back at things now, I kind of regret a lot of things," says Minhaj as he looks around his dorm room. "I feel like in some ways it was a waste of time because I angered my parents for being out all the time and grew kind of distant from my cousins and other Muslim friends."
Sitting on his bed, he quietly contemplates his situation. "Sometimes I feel I've done wrong by even going to parties and stuff and it really depresses me," he says slowly and softly as he looks at a copy of the Koran on his desk.
Siobhan, on the other hand, thinks otherwise. "Sometimes something bad needs to happen to shake you up so you realize how things really are," she says.
Minhaj will sometimes go to college parties with his friends because he wants to meet new people and because "the dorm gets boring when nobody is around." Instead of remaining on campus during the weekend, he often goes home; however, he knows that he can't keep returning home for the rest of his life.
"Sometimes I feel that there are two different voices or sides to me," he says. "One side is Islam and its principles and the other...well I don't know what it is."
Minhaj reads a lot of Nietzsche, Aristotle and Plato in his college classes. "I like reading their books because their thoughts and ideas are so logical and make so much sense to me," he says while looking through Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics .
He looks again at the copy of the Koran on his shelf. "But it's totally different from anything in Islam," he says with a sigh.