Ayesha Mattu: Rewriting the Muslim-American Love Story
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
We all love to hear about romance, sex, breakups and more — but when is the last time you used those things to break down racial stereotyping? Time to take a cue from Ayesha Mattu.
By Lorena O'Neil
Watch out, world — Ayesha Mattu is armed with love stories, and she knows how to use them.
“We want to smash the monolith,” says Mattu. ”The monolith that has been erected so severely and concretely in far too many countries and minds about who Muslims are. It puts us into a box.”With her co-editor, Nura Maznavi, Mattu has just released a second anthology of stories, titled Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy. The collection features male writers from a wide range of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, including orthodox, cultural and secular Muslims, and who are a mix of single, divorced, married, widowed and gay. Mattu says that when you think of Muslim men, the words that come to your mind should include successful, desirable, talented, loving.
It seems that readers agree. The anthology just hit bookshelves and went into its second printing only three days after release. And the book is just one part of Mattu’s multipronged approach to changing the global narrative about Muslims.
Muslims need to reclaim love as a birthright.
The first anthology Mattu and Maznavi co-edited, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, drew nationwide media attention and praise and was listed as one of the top 200 books in the nation on Amazon when it debuted. A writer from the first book, Huda Al-Marashi, says she was grateful that the books have been so well-received in the American Muslim community. ”We have no love stories told about us, and in that way, we start to even see ourselves like that,” she explains. “You watch movies and you think, ’Well these things just don’t happen to people like us.’ We don’t get to fall in love. Our stories are stories of war, of immigration. We don’t get to be the protagonists of those sweeping romances.”
What better subject to unite than the universal language of love? Mattu, 41, points out that stories about Muslim men and women in pop culture and the media typically are not told by Muslims themselves. She sees the books as “a really provocative invitation” to have interesting and complicated conversations about Muslim experiences.
Provocative is right. The authors published a ”Hot Muslim Men of 2014” pinup calendar on Buzzfeed, using humor and satire to challenge stereotypes. The calendar prompted both accusations of objectification of Muslim men and compliments for their creative way of spotlighting admirable men.
In addition to writing, Mattu works as an international development consultant focused on women’s human rights. She is a founding board member for the Muslim Women’s Fund, which serves more than 600 million Muslim women worldwide through grassroots campaigns developed in partnership with the women they serve.
When you are given a death sentence at 30 … it completely transforms the way that you live.
Mattu’s drive to overturn stereotypes began with with her experiences as a teen. Born in Chicago, she grew up in California with her parents and two younger sisters. But when she reached her high school years, her family left the U.S. ”I went from Reaganite America where communist Russia was the enemy, and then we moved to Pakistan, and India was the enemy and communist China was our best friend.” The move to Pakistan was motivated by her father’s desire to give back to the country that made him a doctor, but for the young Mattu the traumatic change yielded cultural insights. “It very quickly became apparent to me at the age of 13 that there were many different narratives side by side, simultaneously.”
She started writing and would climb to mountaintops in Islamabad to have poetry readings with her girlfriends. She began to redefine what it meant to be an American and what it meant to be Muslim; what it meant to live as a religious and racial minority in one country and a majority in the other.
She eventually settled back in the States, and while she was living in Boston, she began her very own love story with Randy Nasson. They had a whirlwind courtship resulting in Mattu being the first person in her large, extended family to marry a non-Pakistani. Not long after their marriage, Mattu, then 30, was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that caused multiple episodes of paralysis and blindness.
Nasson, who is now also a Sunni Muslim, recounts their story in the last chapter of Salaam, Love. The newlyweds were told that Mattu had eight years to live.
“I think when you are given a death sentence at 30, you cannot remain untouched by that,” says Mattu. “It completely transforms the way that you live. I think everything I do is informed by that. I’m living on borrowed time. I’m aware that this is extra time that I’ve been given. I’ve been given a husband, a son, this opportunity to radically transform the narrative about Muslims. It’s a precious gift.”
While her health is stable now, she says there is still an element of urgency to all the work she does. “Not a day goes by when I don’t remember what it was like to not be able to see, to not be able to walk. Or when I couldn’t even think about making a plan for tomorrow or even tonight.”
But it doesn’t stop Mattu from thinking about the future. She talks about working on another anthology with Maznavi, possibly one about mothers and daughters. The co-editors hope their anthologies will go international and inspire Muslim editors abroad to collect stories about Muslims in their own cultural and religious contexts. She’d also like to bring her son, Rumi, to Pakistan to sit at the feet of her elders and hear their own narratives.
”Love is not a word that springs to mind when people think of Muslim or Islam,” she says. ”For us as Muslims, we need to reclaim that as our birthright.”