Before prison, David only knew one world. He was part of a biker gang and got himself into trouble. Once a man pulled a loaded gun near his face and nearly killed him. Another time, two men opened beer bottles on his scalp and left him to die. Before Islam, his enemies were the people around him, after he became a Muslim his biggest enemy became himself – his anger and agression. Once in prison, David starting to learn self-control. He vowed to learn self-control.
David picked up a Qur’an only so he could refute his sister who embraced the faith. After reading it cover-to-cover he was so moved by the book that he accepted Islam. Later in his life, David was sentenced to three years in prison in South Dakota. He knew very little about Islam, but saw this as a chance to turn things around for himself. His cellmate was an observant Jewish man who was serving a life sentence. Since David didn’t know Arabic and believed that the call to prayer had to be made before praying, he got his cellmate to do a call to prayer in Hebrew just so he could pray. The other prisoners would mess with them and call their cell “Little Jerusalem.”
A year into his sentence, he decided he wanted to get married. He had been in a number of unsuccessful marriages and knew now what would work for him and what wouldn’t. It was important for him to find someone while he was in prison so they could accept him for who he is. Somehow or another, the Islamic Pink Pages, a matrimonial directory, found their way to him. In it, he found a listing for a lady in Singapore and wrote her a letter introducing himself. The lady, Nor, received the letter two weeks later. She didn’t know what to say, Nor was the assistant principal of a prestigious Islamic School, David was in prison in South Dakota. She sent him a letter apologizing and saying that he might have gotten the wrong person, but still went ahead and introduced herself.
Nor’s husband died in a brutal car accident. She was left to raise her three children on her own. Her eldest son felt that she should look to get married again as she was still young, so he put a listing out in the Islamic Pink Pages. Nor was understandably uneasy in her correspondence with David, but felt she should at least give him a chance. His honesty and candor caught her off guard. It was different, it was refreshing. They kept in touch for a year. Nor studied Shariah Law in college so David would ask her questions about Islam that he and his fellow inmates would have. They would wait patiently for “Sister Nor’s” responses on many legal Islamic issues. They would take her word as if it were the Quran itself. The inmates had very little exposure to Islam. Once, a Muslim was admitted to the South Dakota prison who knew some Qur’an. They all would gather around him just to hear him recite it in Arabic.
A year into talking, David finally built up the courage and asked her hand in marriage. He sent the letter and waited impatiently for her response. Everyday as the mailman came by he would frantically run up to the bars and ask if there was any mail for him.
“Sorry, David,” the mailman would say, “nothing yet.”
A month passed and no word from Nor. David was devastated. He started getting into fights with other inmates and lost his job. His prison mates saw him falling into pieces and comforted him as much as they could. David felt all was lost with Nor, until a month and half later he received a letter from her. David was sitting in a cell when the mailman came with a letter. Nor had agreed to marry him.
David’s sister, Aneesa, couldn’t believe it. Nor had never seen a picture of David. Only David had seen a picture of Nor.
“Are you crazy!?” Aneesa asked Nor on the phone once, “He could be blind or deaf or have a bad limp. You have no idea what he looks like or who he is in person!”
“That is fine. He just needs to have a good heart.” Nor replied.
A couple of months later, Nor finally made it to South Dakota. It had been a whole year now that they had been corresponding and Nor finally called David on the phone. The prison was rowdy that day and David couldn’t hear anything on his end.
“Quiet down!” said one of the inmates, “He’s talking to his lady for the first time!”
The entire prison went mute.
“Hello?” David said on the line.
There was no response.
A minute later, Aneesa picks up the phone.
“David, she got so nervous she fainted…”
Today, we sit together in their small house in Sioux Falls. David laid the hardwood floors himself and made some holes in the floor that have made Nor unhappy. They have been married now for 11 years. David sits next to a stack of National Geographic magazines that they got on Craigslist’s Curb Alerts. Nor walks out a little while later. She greets us and stands by the dining table. She is small and reserved. As David shares a story about growing up in the farms, she covers her face laughing and rolls her eyes.
“I’ve heard them all,” she says to us.
David’s life is an open book. No part of his life is off limits to talk about. In the first ten minutes we met him, he had shared three stories and told us about his big mouth and bad temper. Nor is the opposite, precise and soft-spoken. Ever since he was released from prison, they have lived together in South Dakota.
Nor brought her two younger boys to live with them. The adjustment for Noor was difficult. She wore a scarf when she would leave the house and many would curse at her and call her a terrorist. She took a job at the local K-mart as a cashier. In the beginning, her co-workers gave her a difficult time, but she slowly won the hearts of her customers and supervisors.
David leaves the room for a second and comes back with a stack of folders that reads “Nor’s letters.”
“You kept all these?” Nor says, surprised.
David starts scouring the folder to find the first one she wrote to him.
Nor picks it up and reads it.
“ ‘I am a fair skinned, skinny Malaysian Singaporian.’” she covers her face laughing, “I can’t believe I wrote that.”
The letters in the beginning were very formal. She addressed him as “Brother David.” They were calculated and cut straight to the facts. After marriage, ‘Brother David’ became “My Beloved Husband,” and the letters began to carry an emotional weight they never had before.
I see a letter in David’s hand and ask him if I can take a photo of it. He puts it down for me, but Nor quickly points at a part in it and blushes.
“Uh, well you can’t see anything past this point.”
David covers the entire page.
The day before their marriage, they were to meet each other face-to-face for the first time. David was still in prison, so when they saw one another it was through the glass separating inmates and visitors. When they gave them a minute to meet one another without the barrier, David came close to hug Nor, but she quickly moved away.
“It’s haram for us to hug!” she said to him, “we are not married yet.”
David began apologizing. He felt so bad and thought he ruined everything. For the past year, she was just words on a paper and now, she stood right in front of him and all he was allowed to do was smile and wave from a distance.
The next day, David was brought down from his cell to sign the marriage contract. When he was given a pen, his hands started shaking and he was unable to sign it.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” The Warden said, frustrated by David’s nervousness.
He then walks up to David, grabs his hand and helps him sign it.
Later that day, David and Nor came together in a cold prison room where they finally saw each other as husband and wife and held hands for the first time.