I don't remember the precise moment I decided to pretend to drink, but it happened at some point after people stopped inviting me to hang out. I had lost my first group of friends during freshman year of high school because they wanted to sneak vodka from their parents' liquor cabinets and didn't bother inviting me along. They told me later, after they'd pretty much stopped being my friends altogether, that it was because "you won't drink. You have that weird Muslim thing."
Growing up, I learned that there are religious Muslims and "cool" Muslims—ones who resemble Sarah Koenig's portrayal of Adnan Syed in Serial: a "normal American teenager" who "drinks, smokes weed, has sex."
I wasn't "cool," so in high school, I made friends who didn't care about drinking, or who didn't care that I abstained; I could get away with not drinking (and still thrive in many social spaces) because I was underage and it was normal. But as early adulthood arrived, that game changed, and I had to get more creative.
I vividly recall going to a student leadership conference—one full of post-secondary schools' "brightest minds," where nerds nerded out by discussing issues relevant to students. This was a space where I dominated, and during the day, I was excited to hang out with the other "student leaders." But at night, in hotel rooms where everyone was unsupervised and in close proximity, my non-drinking became a problem.
I didn't judge the other Muslim kids who drank—because really, who cares?—but no one seemed to enjoy my company since I wasn't drinking. I can only infer there is a kinship between drinkers, something like the bonds that form between social smokers in office workplaces. And there I was, sober, on the periphery. It's a feeling I've once heard described as being a virgin watching an orgy.
That night, instead of getting plastered with all the other kids in ill-fitting suits, I caught up with a local friend he showed me around town—the hipster eateries, unlabeled coffee shops, even the local strip club. I had fun sans alcohol.
The next day, the bonding and kinship was cemented. No one could remember the night very well, but there were cryptic inside jokes that I wasn't in on—"remember that guy who grabbed Becky?" It made me realize that I had to find a way to get in with a new crowd. I realized I needed to fake drinking.
At first, my techniques were sloppy. I'd hesitate when someone offered me a drink, stuttering that I was underage, or that I didn't have an ID, or that I had taken over-the-counter drugs and couldn't mix them with alcohol. Sometimes, I just pretended I was already drunk—giggling, yelling a bit, or infantilizing myself in other ways. Other times, I would survey a room for potted plants and siphon my drink in.
Pretending to drink made me a type of likable I hadn't experienced before. And quickly, I became very good at pretending. I would still slip up from time to time (once, a professor I had met suggested we meet up over drinks, and when my face slipped, he quickly offered coffee instead) but now, I liken myself to a con artist of sorts. People often take years to figure out that I don't drink. Practice makes perfect.
Even so, my fake drinking hasn't solved everything. In December, one of my best friends sent out a group message about planning her birthday party. She quickly followed up with me: "Sorry—this might not be for you Nashwa." I asked her why, and she replied, "lol because drinking."
I've sometimes wondered what would happen if I stopped lying—if I stopped accepting the glasses handed to me without finding ways to funnel some out into flower pots, or if I avoided events with drinking altogether. But fake drinking has become a means of code-switching for me. It's easier for everyone.
In college, I remember another young Muslim who avoided a student union presidential pub because she didn't want to be around alcohol, even though she was a candidate for the student union. I did attend that event (though, obviously, I didn't drink) and was privy to multiple conversations about how weird she was. Some even felt her absence was rude. Fitting in as the "cool Muslim" gives me the ability to straddle these worlds, and my observations usually end up at the same conclusion every time: Why the fixation on booze?
Recently, I tweeted about hiding my alcohol abstinence, and I received an onslaught of support I had not expected. Suddenly, my experience didn't seem so isolated. Leilah, another Muslim woman I talked with, said that she had "always felt left out when it came to socializing with coworkers." She doesn't drink either, and since she wears a hijab, she said she felt "awkward going into bars."
One time, Leilah told me, her coworkers invited her out to a restaurant after work, where everyone ordered drinks. She ordered hookah—something that's considered a normal social activity in our culture. "By the time the hookah arrived," she told me, "my boss was on his second or third drink. He gives me this weird look and asks me if I smoke anything else. He then 'jokingly' suggests implementing drug testing for all his employees. I thought it was so strange that someone who consumes alcohol would be offended by a hookah."
It's not just Muslims, of course. Many who don't drink share similar experiences, regardless of religion. One woman told me, "Cutting alcohol and bars out of my life has definitely been detrimental to my social life—but in another way, it forces potential new friends out of their comfort zones so we can get to know each other in a real sober way from the jump, and helps me figure out more quickly whether they're worth my time as a friend or not."
That's something I still struggle with. I still don't know if I have a community I can regularly see that understands me. I don't quite fit in with Muslims who entirely avoid places that serve alcohol, and I don't quite fit in with those who drink—and so finding my people has been a hunt.
Sarah, another non-drinker, put it another way: "The response to 'I don't drink' is always so over-the-top to me: 'You don't drink? Why?' like we all sign some sort of mandatory social contract saying we must drink. We must love alcohol."
Sarah told me that one of her former bosses once said he was "suspicious of anyone who didn't like alcohol." She just sat there with a blank expression and eventually changed the subject. This cemented my hypothesis that drinking—and by extension, fake drinking—forms a kinship I could not attain in other ways.
Yesterday, I was at a networking event with a group of colleagues. While they were discussing bars they liked, I just smiled. I asked the bartender at the event to mix two juices together and make me something that looked like an exotic cocktail. It tasted delicious.
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