A couple on a date in New York City. Illustration for Hyphen by Heedayah Lockman
Illustration for Hyphen by Heedayah Lockman

Love in the Big Apple

In New York, it’s not difficult to meet new, exciting people. But finding a lasting relationship comes with its own challenges

It’s been two weeks since I arrived in New York City. Like many who arrive here for the first time, I was exhausted by the grind of London life. Wanting to escape the grey skies and endless rain that seemed to characterise this summer, I sought spiritual renewal overseas. What better place than the concrete jungle that dreams are made of? At the very least, I knew that the subway wouldn’t end up being shut down by strikes — it runs 24/7!

The reason for my trip was to visit friends and do some book promotion. I had no intention of dating while I was in town — even when propositioned by two strangers on the street, which was more action than I’d had in months back home. Holiday romance always seems messy and although I have been told that getting married is the fastest way to secure a visa, I’m not sure if the strings attached would lead to a blissful union. 

Still, conversations on dating and sex have been abundant during my time here — not least among my American Muslim friends, some of whom, like me, are on the verge of giving up altogether.

I was intrigued by that. I’d always assumed that in New York — a more densely populated city than London, home to more people and more ethnically diverse — Muslim women would find it far easier to date. In my mind, it always seemed like a place people headed to with dreams, ambitions and a desire to carve out their own lives, perhaps putting some distance between themselves and their families. Given that, I thought that dating as a Muslim would be simpler, especially if there’s no danger of running into a rogue auntie or uncle on the street. If anything, though, London’s dating app issues seem magnified here.

One of my friends, Fatima, a film student in her mid-twenties, told me that she had been using apps for years. Rather than looking for casual relationships, she was now using them to search exclusively for Muslim partners. She hoped to find a man who shared her faith and could be a prospect for a serious relationship, but the ones she matched with were interested only in talking about sex. Whenever she tried to change the subject, they would say she was boring. 

For them, she explained, “sex is such a huge expectation when using apps — a case of when rather than if”, adding that such dynamics inevitably make looking for a halal relationship difficult. Being in New York does provide some relief though, not least because she isn’t under any pressure to please her family, who still live in the Middle East.

Another friend, Harj, told me that she had recently reconnected with an ex, which seemed promising at first. He even flew her out to Italy, where he’d been on a business trip, for a long, hot weekend. I know, girls, sounds like commitment, right? Sadly not. Shortly after the visit, when she asked whether they were officially back together, he responded bluntly over WhatsApp: “I’m at a point in my life right now where I want to be selfish.” Harj suspects she wasn’t the only one to have received that message. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In New York, a city filled with people on demanding schedules and with big ambitions, casual dating appears to be going out of fashion. New apps such as Coffee Meets Bagel, on which people can seek love, make friendships or forge business connections, are becoming increasingly popular among people looking for a less intense version of Tinder. Hearing about friends landing their dream jobs via a sort-of-dating app seemed bizarre at first, but, considering the state of the employment market in Britain, it might be worth a shot.

It also feels easier to meet people in New York, whether on the street, at events or at parties. Compared with London, going out is an eclectic and unpredictable experience — you never know who you’re going to meet, where they’re from or how they arrived here. In all my social interactions, I’ve encountered a refreshing mix of curiosity and acceptance. Perhaps it’s because one of the city’s most attractive qualities is its emphasis on cultural diversity. I’ve been amazed at how people here seem more open to figuring out what you have in common with them than the things that set you apart.

That sense of forthrightness was evident from the moment I landed at JFK. I had been nervous that, like many Muslims, I would be subject to questioning and not-so-random searches, and that forgetting the zip code of my accommodation could be enough to put me on the first flight back to London. Instead, the border patrol guy, seemingly unassuming at first, asked who I was travelling with. As usual, I ended up oversharing: “Unfortunately on my own.” Smelling the desperation, he asked: “You here to hook up?” Perhaps I should have taken his number.

As you can probably tell, New York is by no means an easy solution for Brits exhausted with the national dating pool. Despite what Netflix movies might suggest, it’s unlikely you’ll arrive here and fall in love in one weekend. But I will say that, based on how outgoing many New Yorkers seem to be, there’s a better chance to meet people during your time here. 

The streets are buzzy and, compared with London’s early shutdowns, the city actually has a functioning nightlife. It’s not just clubs and bars that are open until the early hours, either. Art galleries, diners and bookstores are regularly open for night owls. For a midnight date, I’d recommend sharing a slice of Oreo mille crepe cake at Mango Mango Artisan Lab in the East Village.

And if, like me, you aren’t in the mood for love right now, just walking down the city’s streets and avenues, window shopping while sipping Jamba Juice can be a delight. Doing just that and seeing a group of New York Fire Department officers in uniform was almost enough for me to need rescuing, I can tell you.


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