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When they immigrated from Egypt, my parents brought a lot of ideas about what kind of men their sons should be. It was all around my blue-collar, immigrant corner of North Jersey: a wife from the tribe, dutiful kids, a man as the natural leader. As the youngest of four kids, three of them boys, I didn’t much question who I was meant to be. In fact, I took it for granted, shut down my doubts in my teen years, and took on an air of tough indifference. If I acted like that man, then I would be that man.
It worked for a while. Fast forward about 15 years, and I’m married—kind of by accident. In two years with my wife, I’ve realized how little of our marriage my parents would recognize. My wife and I are open with each other about things I never thought I would talk about with anyone when I was younger, when I equated openness with failed masculinity. I didn’t plan it this way. At the same time, I didn’t fight it. I don’t know what changed to lead me to this place where I am not quite what I thought I’d be, and not entirely sure what I want to be, and yet here I am. And looking at what’s going on around me—in the relationships I see between other men and their families, men and other men, men and women, not only among friends and loved ones but in the news the past couple of years, and in our culture—it’s pretty obvious that the kind of man my hardheaded Muslim teenage self planned to become is not me. I want to know how and why that’s true, and I want to know what’s next for me and for guys who may be wondering the same about themselves.
That’s the idea behind the new Slate podcast Man Up. In a previous series for Slate, “Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail?,” I traveled around the country to investigate stereotypes about American Muslims, whether that meant going to the office of a Islamophobic Texas legislator outside Dallas or excavating some of my family’s own skeletons. With Man Up, I’m doing a lot of the same: having tough, funny, enlightening conversations where I try to get beneath the notions we’ve taken for granted, and asking hard questions about the ideas we have about what a man should be. Every week, we’ll hear stories from men and women. They might be embarrassing or disturbing. The story might, as with our first episode live Wednesday, be about the urge to fight—to be aggressive and dominant—no matter the cost. It might be about growing up as the only girl in a group of male friends and what happens when your crew discovers sex. It might be about what happened when I yelled at my brother’s kids the way our dad once yelled at us (it wasn’t good). My goal is just to be as honest as possible, even when we don’t like what I hear, from others and from myself.
As I start my own family, I’ve waited for some kind of eureka moment when I wake up with the complete sense of the man I ought to be, whatever that means. It hasn’t happened. So this is what I’m going to be investigating in these conversations, too: me. Every story I’ve heard so far has helped me figure out a little more about myself and form a more complicated picture of what being a man can mean. It turns out that if you are vulnerable, and ask for vulnerability, you might be surprised by what happens. And we want to invite you to do that with me. Tell me something you think about but can never quite find a way to talk about with other people. Send an email to email@example.com, or better yet, leave me a voicemail at 805-626-8707. We’ll play some on the show and ask more questions. We’ll be back every week with more stories, I hope including yours.
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