In Karachi, Pakistan, where I live, it’s difficult to reconcile my antipathy toward religion with making friends.
The first woman who arrived was wearing a bright-yellow hijab. The folds didn’t lie flat against her face, the mesh of the cloth revealing that she was wearing a skintight nude cap underneath it. No wisps of hair showed through. Before I even bothered to greet her, my prejudice played a game. Four months wearing a hijab, I told myself. Married, with kids, made the Hajj pilgrimage in the last two years.
On some level, my disdain for a woman with whom I’ve exchanged only a few sentences was a defense mechanism; 20 minutes later, I managed to say something purely by accident that deeply offended her. I envisioned her later that evening, taking off her hijab at the vanity as her husband watched her from their bed. She’d tell him about the bizarre woman she met at dinner, about the way that she bluntly admitted that she slept in a bed with another man. “She’s not married,” she’d say. I ascribed to their faces identical looks of pity.
We’d gathered at an Asian fusion restaurant in Karachi, Pakistan, where I live, for our friend Alana’s birthday. When the woman in the hijab told me she met Alana at a Qur’an class, the twist of her smile gave away a tiny sliver of shame, as though she wasn’t used to walking into a room with her headscarf on. I readjusted what I’d guessed earlier; she had been wearing that hijab for even less than four months. Recently, she too had judged a girl for hiding her hair; the feeling was undoubtedly fresh on her mind as she admitted that she’s religious. I smiled benevolently, and asked for details.
In Karachi’s elite circles, being too religious is as big a crime as looking poor. This segment of society values quick changes in fashion trends, in keeping up appearances of absurd wealth and privilege. Wearing a hijab is anathema to this, and the girl twinged self-doubt as she looked at the yards of my thick black hair. Though initially I judged her for wearing a hijab, knowing that she chose to wear one only recently makes me accept her a little more than I ordinarily would. This is a recent development in my life, one I owe entirely to Alana.
Alana is the only friend I have that wears a hijab. Hers are in an array of bright colors, often fringed with jewelry and worn in a way that’s so chic that I forgive it as a fashion accessory instead of acknowledging it as part of her deep faith. Though I was born into a Muslim family in Pakistan, and lived in a Houston suburb full of Southern Baptists for all of junior high and high school, I’m not religious, and usually look down on people who are.
I grew up in an extremely conservative and insular Muslim sect, uncommon even in a city full of other Muslims. (I am refraining from naming the sect because I don’t want my family to be targeted within our small community.) The rules of my sect seemed arbitrary and I could never find a link between the expectations of the religion and the benevolent God I was attempting to pray to. When we first moved to the U.S., my parents enrolled me in a Saturday school where I learned about my sect and religion with other kids my age. I strained against my doubt, and found myself asking the volunteer teachers questions they found difficult to answer. Finally, the woman who ran the school asked my parents to remove me from the program. “She’s too distracting to the other students,” the woman explained.
Angry and hurt that no one could answer questions, I stopped going to mosque when possible, and began skipping the prayers I was supposed to say. At 15, I stumbled across the word “agnostic,” and realized that there were a slew of people out there like me — people who weren’t convinced there wasn’t a god, but who maybe didn’t believe that organized religion was the best way to get to him.
By the time I moved back to Karachi after 13 years in the U.S., I’d cultivated friendships with almost every type of person, but I studiously avoided anyone who was a devout Muslim.
But Alana is different. Her embrace of Muslimah identity has become such a large part of her personality that I find myself indulging her. Alana was born into a deeply religious Pentecostal family in Indiana. In early photographs of her parents, her father, a former tailback for the Colts, stands hulkingly near her tiny Filipina mother. Alana went to church every Sunday, and attended a Nazarene school until eighth grade. Her family even ran a Pentecostal church in Immokalee, Florida.
At no point, Alana has explained to me, did she ever lose sight of her faith or doubt the existence of God. Instead, she found herself always searching for a way to be closer to Him. When she met Owais, a Pakistani student studying at the same college that Alana had attended, she knew almost immediately that he was the person she would marry. Intrigued by his faith, she opened up an English translation of the Holy Qur’an. Alana has always told me that the Qur’an spoke to her in way that the Bible never had. Six months later, she converted formally, taking the Shahadat, and reciting that there was no god worthy of worship but Allah, and that Mohammed was his messenger.
But when we first met, she didn’t look religious. When I first met Alana, she was wearing a pink St. James sweater and her hair wasn’t covered up. I’d just moved to Karachi from the U.S. to work as a journalist, and was disappointed that I hadn’t made friends as easily as I’d hoped. The Karachi women I’d met often had no jobs, and even if they did, weren’t as career-driven or ambitious as my closest friends back in the U.S. “I’m just kind of working at a law firm until I get married,” explained one woman to me when I showed enthusiasm that I’d finally met someone who had a real job. I found it extremely difficult to be myself in Karachi’s Victorian-seeming society — I’d blurt out things that I would tell anyone back home in the U.S, but in Karachi I was met with horrified stares. I loved the journalism that I was doing, but found it hard to talk about it with anyone I met. I’d begun developing a reputation as a loose cannon and couldn’t figure out what kinds of comments were appropriate for polite company.
By the time I met Alana, I’d learned to censor myself, carefully chewing over what I said before the words would ever leave my mouth. Then, Alana tucked her long legs under the table I was sitting at and introduced herself in a familiar American accent, and for the first time, in the city I was born in, I felt at home. For weeks I toyed with the idea of getting her phone number from the acquaintances who had introduced us. The next time I saw her, though, only a month later, she was wearing a head scarf and an abaya, walking in comfortably to the room even as I stared at her in shock.
Almost a full year later, Alana and I were at a small gathering and our eyes met in perfect understanding. She was wearing a hijab and abaya with a pair of gorgeous heels and I was underdressed in a henley T-shirt and flats. When she walked in, I’d greeted her politely, judging her internally for dressing the way she did. Then, a girl said something so unforgivably stupid and I looked around the room to see if anyone else had heard her. Alana had. Two days later, we made plans for coffee and connected instantly.
“Why haven’t we done this before?” she asked. “I judged you for wearing a hijab,” I blurted out. She nodded slowly. “Yeah, I judged you for having a thicker American accent than me.” We burst into the kind of unguarded laughter that I had rarely seen young Pakistani women do in public. We started meeting for coffee almost every week. She’d talk about what it was like to live with her in-laws, who didn’t speak English extremely well, and I’d talk about how many different layers of clothes I had to shed before walking out of my conservative Karachi neighborhood to a more bourgeois one.
Because Alana grew up in the same kind of close-knit American environment as I had come of age in, I found it easy to talk to her. We’d been raised knowing we were free to question our emerging identities, that we had options other than to get married and have children. Unlike the women in Karachi, Alana was outspoken, given to saying what she was thinking without censoring herself. She wore her emotions on her sleeves, and occasionally broke out into a case of the giggles. I could ask her questions that were mildly offensive without worrying that she’d never speak to me again, and talk about relationships with both women and men without concerns that she’d spread vile rumors about how I was a slut. She often gave me exactly the kind of advice I needed.
I knew our relationship was bizarre — even my father didn’t understand when I texted him to say that Alana was over at our house, and had taken off her headscarf so he should call before coming inside our house. Later that evening, he joked that he wasn’t sure what was weirder to him: that I had a friend who was religious, or that I was patient and understanding about her religiosity.
I wasn’t always though. While I managed to reach a level of understanding with Alana about the importance she placed on faith, I sometimes lapsed back into judging her for her concerns. Once, she mentioned that it was time for afternoon prayers and she needed to head back home. “Just pray here,” I told her, scrounging around in my closet for a prayer mat I was sure I had. She looked uncomfortable before telling me that according to Islam, she wasn’t really allowed to say her prayers in a room where there were so many images of people. My walls were littered with photographs of my friends and me. She could tell that I still hadn’t fully understood the reason behind what I saw as an arbitrary rule. Instead of launching into a sanctimonious lecture, though, she gently asked if I wanted to know more. I shook my head, knowing I wouldn’t really understand even after she explained it, and we left it at that.
Early in our friendship, Alana mentioned off-handedly that the Qur’an said men weren’t allowed to wear silk, or gold. I stared at her in disbelief and she realized that I hadn’t ever heard about this before. “What a dumb rule,” I blurted out, realizing a second after the words had left my mouth that I had been incredibly impolite. On the defensive, Alana explained the intricacies of the rules to me. I still couldn’t wrap my brain around it, and I told her so. “Well then you’re not required to follow it,” she told me. I’m not sure what expression I had on my face, but Alana looked at me for a moment before explaining that the most important thing was that I believe in God. “If this doesn’t make sense to you, don’t get hung up on it,” she told me. “Just figure out that you believe in Allah, say your prayers, and work your way to the other stuff eventually. And if it never happens, it never happens.”
It was the first time in my entire life that anyone had told me I didn’t have to follow every single rule imposed by Islam to be a Muslim. Previously, I had believed that if I couldn’t ascribe to every requirement, I couldn’t be a Muslim. Though I still wasn’t sure I’d ever stop being an apostate, her nonjudgmental approach to my religious apathy was comforting.
At her birthday party, though, I realized that while I’d managed to reach a level of understanding with Alana about religion, I hadn’t quite gotten there with the rest of the world. I still judged all of the girls who came from Alana’s beloved Qur’an class, especially when they began talking about hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage, as though it was a rich socialite’s trip to Paris.
As they ventured off into conversations that are increasingly alien to me — debating the merits of eating organic meat in Pakistan, where a good percentage of the country is suffering from chronic malnutrition; discussing the myriad cruises they’d been on and comparing each liner’s cuisine; and launching into a tirade against a series of restaurants I wouldn’t be able to afford in Dubai — I tuned them all out. As the conversation droned on, I caught Alana’s eye. She could tell that I was uncomfortable, and she gave me a small smile.
Later in the week, we met for lunch and for two blissful hours, I was cocooned in a different Karachi. It was just Alana and me, and I didn’t have to worry about saying something that would spread rumors like wildfire, or be bored by the conversation. I wore a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, stuffing the scarf I’m required to leave the house with into my purse. She wore silken abaya robes and an impeccably wrapped hijab. When we talked about her birthday dinner, she made fun of me for having bitten my tongue for as long as I did. I made fun of her friends for talking about gluten-free food in Karachi, and we giggled about the privilege of what it’s like to have first-world problems in third-world countries.
She’s still the one person in the city I can relate to the most, and even though we acknowledged that the women at dinner weren’t people I could spend time with again, I promised to join them at her next birthday party. Perhaps this time, I’ll be less judgmental too.