But once I sensed that we had navigated ourselves to the calm, still waters of friendship, I dove right into a deep and dangerous topic.
"Why are Muslim men so mean?"
* * * * *
It's only fair to say that my Malaysian friends were not my first Islamic rodeo.
The very first Muslim friend I ever made, back in 2000, was a four-year-old boy named Mehdi. Despite his dark hair and Arab skin, Medhi's piercing blue eyes were the color of the palest spring sky. His smile started at the tips of his toes and spread up, lighting every inch of his tiny frame with joy. His family attended the same school-for-homeschoolers as mine, and he often pulled up next to me in the Interactive Project Collaborative Lab, happily coloring or building LEGOs while chatting a mile a minute with me.
I loved Mehdi, and got a huge kick out of his expansive and gloriously happy little being.
^ No one cares about head scarves when you've got hoodies, a hammock, and unlimited camera space.
We were new at the school in those days, and I soon discovered that many Muslim families studied alongside us. Those kids - mostly American-born of Middle Eastern parents - ran around with the rest of the students, every bit as funny and smart and carefree. True, the Muslim girls wore head scarves and kept their arms and legs covered, but we often saw them in the bathroom with their scarves off and their hair down, and we knew they were just like us.
So I was not entirely surprised when one of my daughters chose a Muslim schoolmate as her boyfriend. He was an enjoyably all-American kid, polite and respectful and funny with his hoodies and checkered Vans and skateboard tucked under his arm; every mother's dream of a first boyfriend for her daughter. Over the months of their relationship, he spent many an afternoon at our house, and I kept my fridge stocked with frozen cheese pizzas to work around his halal dietary needs. Other than that, his Islamic-ness was a complete non-issue.
I loved my daughter's boyfriend and welcomed him - as well as his younger sister who spent lots of time with us too - into our family life.
^ My daughter's boyfriend's sister on the left, my fourth-born on the right, and a third friend with great sideways eyes in the middle.
Through the school grapevine, the story of these kids' family life came to light and it wasn't pretty. Suffice to say that not one but two fathers had failed them; the four oldest children were now in the care of a good woman but had suffered far too much violence, abuse and neglect for their young lives.
My fiercely protective heart burned with rage against the men who had hurt these great kids.
^ Now that's what I call shock and awe.
I also learned that little Mehdi was in fact one of three younger siblings who had been adopted away from the four older children. He was my daughter's boyfriend's younger brother. Though Mehdi was now with a wonderful family, my frustration and anger surged even deeper to know that he also had been wounded by these men.
To be honest, as much as I accepted and loved the Muslim women and children in my life, I began to hate Muslim men. Granted, I was generalizing wildly, but anyone who could inflict such cruelty upon their wives, sons and daughters could not be the men of God that they so boldly claimed to be.
* * * * *
Back on Facebook, my first Malaysian friend - a Muslim man himself - listened patiently as I shared this story and demanded, once again, an answer to my question:
"Why are Muslim men so mean?"
His first response was to ask me a question: "You said these men are from which countries?
The Middle East.
"Well," he thoughtfully continued, "then they are Arabs. Arabs have their own culture, and the Arab men are very strong. But that is not because they are Muslims; it's because they are Arabs. Muslim men come from many different cultures and each culture influences how they behave. We are not all the same."
That made perfect sense.
Today, I still perceive Arab Muslim men as rough - maybe it's the hot desert winds or the political upheaval or the sand constantly blowing up their thawbs, I don't know for sure. But in my personal experience, Arab Muslim men tend to be a serious, commanding, and hot-tempered lot.
But it's also been proven to me countless times that the Malay Muslim men are a totally different breed. Light-hearted and quick to laugh,, they are patient and easy-going as a rule. Rather than dominating family life, my Malay Muslim men friends put their wives' and children's needs first.
I've watched these men carefully feeding rice to their toddlers, or gently soothing a crying babe,
I've listened from the backseat as many a Malay Muslim wife scolds her husband for a wrong turn, and noticed only restrained silence in return.
I've seen my friends carefully meting out the last bits of a meal, taking care to ensure that everyone at the table gets their fair share.
^ The image is blurry but the sentiment is perfectly clear.
Religion and culture are two different things.
Some cultures are more stern than others.
But Muslim men, as a rule, are most definitely not mean.