Greeting, all. The following is a short vignette about life as an atheist in Muslim countries. Enjoy!
A few months ago, I decided, against my better judgement, to date a girl whose mentality was my polar opposite. I was a secular, westernized, freedom-loving hedonist, and she a pious Lebanese Muslim who, like many of her peers, was being torn at the seams by the clash between the forces of modernity and her religion.
To a certain extent, this duality mirrors the city of Beirut, whose streets are full of immaculately groomed high-rise apartment buildings interspersed with dilapidated remnants of the past. Beirut is a city of contradictions. Forward looking, but ever hesitant to weigh anchor and steam ahead.
My relationship with this girl started with a honeymoon phase. Anyone who’s ever dated someone a league or two above will be familiar with this. The 5 am messages. The glowing skin. The boxes of assorted confectionaries. Any red flags at this point were briskly drowned out by… well, more carnal needs.
The human condition is a permanent struggle between our primal brain, and our higher order reasoning centers. One craves instant gratification, the other constantly reminds us of the consequences of reaching out for this gratification. The biblical serpent on one hand, and a nannyish, Mary Poppins-like figure hovering over my shoulder, incessantly waving her finger like a sort of clean-shaven Fidel Castro.
As I started this ill-fated courtship, the fault lines manifested themselves precipitously. On my first trip to Beirut, she refused to give me a ride from the airport to my hotel, fearing the stigma of walking into a hotel with a bachelor. For those unversed with conservative Muslim psyche, reputation is everything. She simply won’t be seen walking into a hotel with a guy, sans wedding ring. I roll my eyes.
I drive through the streets of Beirut’s downtown district towards my hotel. An imposing amalgam of concrete and steel and glass and marble. A sense of being among stone and granite. Cars like shoals weaving through corals. I finally settle into the warm embrace of my bed, and wait.
A couple of hours later, she knocks. I let her in. We hug, and spend the next 30 minutes chatting on the balcony to the cacophony of construction works and the stench of her cigarettes. I invite her inside to plan the day ahead, and to lessen my carbon intake.
We never got to the planning phase.
Once inside, she took off her clothes and pounced on me. This confused me. Weeks earlier, she volunteered the (unsolicited) information that she does not condone sex before marriage, that she was not “that kind of girl.” I rolled my eyes and changed the subject.
The look of confusion on my face must have been blatantly palpable. “Oh, we’re not going all the way”, she replied.
“We’re going half-way, just to get a little taste.” I was intrigued.
“Have you ever done this before?” I asked, nonchalantly. “Yes, but only with one guy, and only because I thought we were going to get married.”
My cheeks gradually puffed as a violent torrent of air migrated from my lungs to my mouth. Against my better judgement, I let out a hearty guffaw. It couldn’t be helped. The mental acrobatics that pious folk indulge in, just to justify giving in to their base instincts… Yes, that’s what I was laughing at, I tell myself.
I drifted into my thoughts. What I was so preoccupied with at that particular point in time, I cannot recall. I let her proceed with her half-thrusts as I converse with my inner self. “A fine pickle you’ve landed yourself in, sir,” referring to this sort of purgatory between sex and non-sex. I am snapped back into the present when she has finished frustrating me to her heart’s content. The smoke from her cigarette flirts with my imagination as I make out shapes of boats and planes and broken hearts.
One day, completely out of the blue, she comes to me with the suggestion that she would like to try out atheism for a few days, just to experience my perspective. “How do you think that will influence your behaviour?” I ask.
“I will probably engage in lots of intercourse, as well as lie, cheat, and possibly steal.”
I shake my head, cringing at her keenness to so easily discard the veneer of civilization. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment my heart cleaved from hers, this would have been it.
“You can’t find happiness down that path,” I replied. “You will only find misery, loneliness, and solitude.”
I lied, of course.
Truth is, she would have devastated the atheist movement, and herself in the process. Additionally, I could no longer tolerate my senses screaming for a reprieve from a relationship on life-support.
A few months go by. Relationship ends amicably. I’m walking back to my hotel on the Corniche, a cosmic grin on my face. Autumn leaves waltz with the piercing breeze. My inner nanny pops into being and rests on my shoulder. To my surprise, she is looking pleased. She grabs my head ever so gently and rests it on her bosom, caressing it tenderly. Her booming, calamitous portents are replaced with a mellifluous, soothing pitch.
At long last, her ceaseless admonishments fade into a careless whisper. I am free.