A New Love
By Alina Butt
For a long time, the Toronto Islamic Centre stood next to Seduction, one of the largest sex shops in the city. Whenever I would walk by and see this unlikely pair standing together on Yonge, it made me smile and think about my own relationship to Islam. Not to compare myself too much to a sex shop, but I have always felt juxtaposed to my surroundings, be it the suburbs, a masjid, or the house where my family lives in Mississauga.
After all, I was born into this. I never got courted, there was no chance to get acquainted before our relationship began. I spent many nights resisting advances over dinner, but really, I did not have much choice in the matter. It always bothered me that my family was so insistent—it made me angry, and I felt like I was trapped somewhere dark and ugly.
I took the first opportunity I had to move away and wound up in a room in Toronto that overlooked the intersection of Bloor Street West and St. George. With my bed pushed right up against the wall, I would crack the window open and lie close enough to feel the breeze on my face as I peered down at the people and cars passing by. I breathed the city in and my anger out, because once I had some space, I was finally able to choose what I wanted to do.
I thought that being by myself in Toronto meant trying new things with new people, and I certainly did that—but with a modesty that surprised me and made me feel like I was still missing something. I decided to come back to the relationship I already had in search of answers, but I never expected that I would finally fall in love.
The romance started out simply, though some might call it mundane, with sitting in classrooms. I would listen raptly while professors guided us through history and cosmology, then go home to curl up in bed with a textbook and read about how humans know more than even angels. I thought about the independence and free will that I had, and where it had led me so far in my life and relationships. In learning different names for Allah, I was discovering the different ways I could be Muslim. I held this knowledge like it was my first time holding hands, warm and comforting with fingers interlocked.
The attraction only grew as I explored Toronto, most often in the hush of night. I felt curious, sitting close on picnic benches in Queen’s Park or the steps of the amphitheater tucked to the side along Philosopher’s Walk. Opening up, I would talk tenderly about the Prophet and his cat, or glance down with a smile while dancing around conversations about the chances of getting happily married. Sometimes I would walk all the way to the waterfront and stare nervously into the dark, wondering if a djinn was looking back at me. I let myself be wooed by qawwalis as I moved through the city. Listening to such reverence, I could feel something swell inside me, strong but unfamiliar – wonder.
There were times that Toronto would surprise me with its boldness, as a city that celebrates the mosaic of its people like no other. I still remember when I stood shivering in the cold and leaned back to look up at a pillar that towered over the crowd teeming in Yonge-Dundas Square. Steel reflected deep purple and blue lights and twisted this way and that in Arabic, calligraphing a Mohawk poem about journeying westwards (as many of us have by being on this land). To see something so beautiful bring light to the eyes of so many different people filled me with something like pride.
By this point I was living underground, in a basement near College and St. George. I started to realize, very shyly, that I really did think of myself as a Muslim. Once I did, it was like being in a new relationship, and some of the loudest expressions of love came in the quietest of moments. I would wake up in the middle of the night to eat something for sehri, alone, all by and for myself. There was something special about being in such a sleepy but determined haze, my eyes on the clock and no noise in the kitchen except for the clink of my cup and the low hum of the refrigerator.
Toronto really became a place where I could and still can express my love honestly and fully, but most importantly, on my own terms. It is being able to see a masjid next to a sex shop, and everyone accepts that without saying anything. It is thinking about being able to hold someone’s hand on the street and point out a masjid, though I have not taken anyone inside just yet.
Yet there are many things I still have and want to do in the city. I will admit, I have yet to step foot inside a masjid in Toronto. I may feel a sense of familiarity when I see one but going inside on my own is something that I still have to work on—like any relationship.