Remona AlyWednesday 07 July 2021 The Guardian
My Summer of Love
About five years ago, I had an unsolicited romance with a guy who was the exact opposite of what I’d been looking for.
I was in the north of England to attend a weekend symposium with creatives from all over the world. After a five-hour train journey, I arrived at the hotel, ready to hide in my room with a cuppa in an undersized mug, when I was told that I was expected at an opening night dinner. I was ushered to the foyer of a grand ballroom where women in glittering gowns and men in sharp suits swanned around me. Not-so-fresh from my travels, I was still dressed in a beige cardigan and crummy trainers.
I quickly found my table and announced: “Hi, I’m Remona, and I didn’t get the memo!” to the other guests. Through the candelabra and foliage, I spotted someone grinning at me: a confident, attractive, 6ft-tall Canadian, whose tattoos popped from under his sleeves – along with a giant sign on his head saying: “Off limits.” As a practising Muslim, my soulmate checklist has always specified a man who shares my faith; someone kind, with integrity and who uses a lota (the Asian version of a bidet – being squeaky clean for prayer is a biggie for many Muslims). My ideal partner was certainly not a lota-less lapsed Catholic covered in tats – not that I thought a handsome, non-Muslim guy would look twice at me, either.
To this day, I still can’t believe he liked me – not just because there were so many gorgeous women there that night, but also because I asked the waiters to serve the two empty spaces that didn’t show up so that I could dive into three melon starters, one and a half dinners and a medley of desserts. Somehow, he found this very amusing.
He moved to sit closer to me, and we chatted. He was intelligent, charming and attentive and, despite myself, I felt the chemistry. The next morning, as I was plating up at breakfast, I heard a voice mutter: “I hear the melon is really good here.”
I was not used to this. To put it in context, the last guy I had been set up with by a well-meaning aunt asked if I was willing to give up work to look after his mother. For the past 13 years, the search for a romantic partner had involved a rotating skewer of dismal coffees and life-sucking dating sites. I was in my mid-30s – considered “left on the shelf” by many Muslim men, for whom I was not young or pretty enough. Or too religious. Or not religious enough. While I also turned down unwanted offers, whenever I had liked a Muslim guy, they would leg it in the opposite direction.
And yet here was this self-assured Canadian, continuing to pay me attention, seeking me out at mealtimes, being respectful of my Muslim sensibilities – it turns out he knew a fair bit about Islam – never crossing any physical boundaries and keeping the flirting subtle. The symposium was coming to a close, and, as I said my goodbyes, he very smoothly asked me to dinner. I was flustered; I had never ever been asked out on a date like this.
Because he had been brave enough to ask a hijabi woman out, because of his kindness and because, more significantly, I gleaned a faint glimmer of hope from friends whose non-Muslim fiances had genuinely loved Islam and ended up converting, I took him up on his offer. Jane Austen was surely talking about single Muslim women when she wrote: “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.”
Yet, I was still in a dilemma. “It’s just dinner, not a marriage contract,” a friend said. “Just bring me back a son-in-law!” said my mum. “But what would people think?” I asked her. “Don’t worry about them,” she replied. “None of those people will be there for you when you’re on your own.”
A few weeks later, I walked towards the restaurant, nervous, doubting, hopeful. I asked God for a sign to propel me into destiny – or get me the heck out of it. We had already postponed the date by a week as he’d had to travel abroad urgently, so I casually asked how his trip went. “Well, actually,” he said, “I just found out I’ve become a father.” My jaw dropped into the guacamole starter. His ex-girlfriend had been in touch with the big news.
Maybe I was a coward, maybe I was smart, but I took that as my sign. It meant that my one and only date with a non-Muslim didn’t go anywhere, but it did teach me to be bolder, be open to risk – and maybe re-examine my priority about a lota.