What Chris Cornell Did for this Pakistani Kid in Saudi Arabia

It was late one winter night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when everyone else in the house was asleep, that I first heard the otherworldly, almost superhuman voice of Chris Cornell.

It was 1989, and I was fourteen.

I was watching a VHS videotape that I’d asked a friend to record music videos on while he visited family in New York. Of course, this is before the Internet, before MP3s, and well before YouTube and online streaming. This was at a time when we had to wait weeks to get our hands and ears on the latest music coming out of America. And music videos were a different story altogether. There were only two local Saudi TV channels—one Arabic, one English—and access to satellite or foreign channels was restricted for most of us. So it was really rare and really exciting to actually be able to watch the artists—whose voices and words you lived and felt and laughed and cried to—perform their craft.

My friend managed to squeeze 6 hours of MTV’s Headbangers Ball into the two-hour videocassette I’d given him, using a VCR setting called extended play. I waited anxiously until my dad got home, and we went to his house to pick it up. I brought it back, popped it into the VCR, and devoured it all in one go, watching and listening, late into the night, long after everyone else had gone to bed.

At the end of the six-hour metal marathon was a song by a band I’d never heard of.

It started with a slow, dark, ear-piercing riff constructed entirely out of feedback. Then, it came. That unreal voice, rising from the din of feedback, beautiful, demonically hypnotic, shaking your bones. I haven’t heard anything like it to this day. The song was “Loud Love.” The band, Soundgarden.

And then, two minutes into the video, the tape ended. I rewound it just to make sure. I popped it out and checked again. And again. But that was it. It was the end of the tape. I was desperate to hear the rest of the song. There were no rock music magazines available anywhere near me, none of my friends had heard of the band, and there was no Google to Google anything with.

Years later, I would go to my cousin’s house, and he would show me this wonder called the Internet. He would load up Yahoo’s search engine and say, “Ali, what do you want to know about? Type anything, anything you want, and it’ll find it for you.” And I would type in Chris Cornell. My first ever Internet search.

But back then, I didn’t have Google or Yahoo. All I had were those two minutes at the end of the tape, which I watched over and over again. I also took a tape recorder, held it in front of the TV speaker, and recorded it so I could play it in my Walkman headphones before going to bed.

It was that year that I moved to Pakistan to continue high school while my family stayed in Riyadh. American music was easier to get in Pakistan than Saudi, and I did manage to find some magazines with short articles about Soundgarden. But apart from that, even there, no one had heard of band. The album wasn’t available anywhere. Again, all I had were those two minutes of “Loud Love.”

Finally, in the spring of 1990, I got some great news. Another cousin from England was coming to visit us in Pakistan that summer. I wrote to her, asking if she would please get me the Soundgarden album. I sealed the envelope, rode my bike to the post office, and mailed the letter. She replied quickly (which means I got her letter about three weeks later) and said she would. About a week before her visit, she went to both Tower Records and HMV in London. No one there had heard of Soundgarden, and neither store had Louder Than Love in stock. But she asked them to order it for her, and picked it up a few days later. When she finally arrived in Pakistan, she handed me the tape.

“Loud Love” was the first song on Side B. I had to fast-forward to the end of Side A to get to it. Finally, I listened to the song from beginning to end, savoring every note. It’s hard to explain to young people today who can access any band or album they want online how exhilarating and euphoric it is to finally get your hands on a record you’ve been waiting months and months for. I was in love. I locked myself in my room. I closed my eyes and listened to the entire album. Then, I opened up the cover and followed along with the lyrics. And I listened to it again. And again. I still listen to it today. I have every lyric on that album memorized.

Those who know me personally have heard me say repeatedly, for decades now, that Chris Cornell is the single best singer who ever lived. Chris’s voice and music has been an integral part of my life in a way I can’t explain. What his voice does to me is what a potent drug might do for someone else. It’s beyond just a melody or a song. It isn’t constrained by the dimensions of any familiar format. It’s unbridled abandon—it’s carefree, wild, raw, animalistic. Chris Cornell is the only man whose songs I’ve listened to or sung at least every week since I was a teenager. My own band does very few covers, but when we do, it’s often a Chris Cornell song. Just last week, I sang “When I’m Down”to my seven-month-old daughter at bedtime. His melodies seem to have the same effect on her.

Less than two years after I first got hooked on those magical two minutes at the end of that Headbangers Ball tape, Soundgarden exploded into the mainstream with their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains as part of the Seattle grunge scene. Now, everyone knew them. Their albums were available at every record store. They transformed the music scene. They won Grammys. Johnny Cash covered “Rusty Cage.” Chris recorded the haunting, beautiful-beyond-words Euphoria Morning. And then, he did it all again with Audioslave.

I never met Chris Cornell, but like millions of his fans, I grew up with him and loved him deeply. There was something about his voice—it wasn’t just music to be listened to. It was helplessly, transcendently felt. It was intimate and transformative in a way that’s inexplicable. I don’t know what made him choose to end it all, but knowing what I knew of him through his art, I understand.

I wish I could have done for Chris what he did for me. Today, though, I’m that 14-year-old kid again. Desperate for more, but the song’s been cut too soon.

“And I’m lost


The words I’ll never find.”

— Chris Cornell, “Seasons”

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

On Belief vs. Identity: Letter to a Young North American Muslim

Do you find yourself feeling personally insulted or targeted when someone criticizes or satirizes your religion?

If yes, it’s likely that your faith isn’t about the ideas in your religion as much as how you’ve incorporated them into your identity — individual, family, cultural, and more. This is why it feels so personal. If it was just about ideas, it wouldn’t feel as offensive, and disagreement from others wouldn’t feel like prejudice or bigotry.

But when you conflate your religion’s ideas with your sense of identity, defending your people becomes the same thing as defending your faith.

Consider that for a moment. Then, take a step back, and try to imagine divorcing the ideas in your religion from the person that you are, or the community you belong to. Are you able to see a distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity?

Suppose someone told you you could keep your family and community traditions, enjoy the feasts of Ramadan, and celebrate the Eid holidays with family and friends like always — but without the burden of defending every line in your scripture. Would you consider it?

I did. And today, I enjoy the Muslim experience much more without the burden of having to believe in Islam.

Unfortunately for most Muslims, the two are tied together. If you give up on the faith part, you may have to say goodbye to your upbringing, your childhood memories, the holidays, the gifts, the family dinners — forever. That’s scary. Increasing numbers of young people from Muslim families have been rejected and disowned simply for changing their mind. Does it really have to be that way?

Remember, your religious beliefs are not you. They are simply part of the medium you were cultured in when you were raised.

You know, deep down, that if you were born in a Hindu family, you’d be Hindu. You know, deep down, that your faith is really just an accident of birth. How can it possibly be about ideas then? Ideas don’t come with birth. But much of what makes up your sense of identity does.

Many religious communities have now evolved beyond their religious beliefs. In effect, they’ve secularized their religions. Judeo-Christian scripture isn’t vastly different from Islamic scripture. Yet many Jews are able to hold on to their cultural identities and customs without the burden of believing in Judaism. Many Catholics are able to celebrate Christmas and Easter without the burden of believing they’ll go to hell for using birth control or being pro-choice.

Similarly, just because you identify with the Muslim experience doesn’t mean you have to justify and defend every line in your book. Especially when you know, deep down, you don’t really agree with all of it. No rational, thinking person can agree with every single idea in any book.

You know, deep down, that reading some parts of it for the first time made you jump — sending you scrambling to Google to find some kind of explanation or “interpretation” that would make it all fit better with your personal sense of what’s right and wrong.

You know, deep down, that in that moment, you weren’t getting your moral guidance fromyour holy book — but you were using your already-present morality to interpret it.

Think about that for a second. Do you really think you need your religion in order to be good? Or look at it another way: if the only thing keeping you from being bad or immoral is your religion, what does that say about you as a person?

You know, deep down, how it looks to others when you twist and turn just to make an ancient verse about wife-beating or killing non-Muslims sound somewhat palatable so you can defend your faith, and therefore, in your mind, your heritage. You know that some things in Abrahamic holy books that are dismissed as being quoted “out of context” wouldn’t be acceptable in any context.

You know, deep down, that you try to convince yourself as much as others that the elaborate explanations from cherry-picked “scholars” justifying these verses must be right — because these modern human explanations feel more morally sound than the supposedly divine verses themselves. You know that you’d never go to such an extent to justify the same ideas if they came from any other author. You know how frustrated you feel when yet another heinous jihadist attack happens, with the terrorist quoting verses from your book, and you have to find a way to explain those verses, despite feeling that you shouldn’t have to.

You know, deep down, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult and exhausting to keep convincing yourself, and others, that your progressive, reasoned values are somehow completely compatible with those words written 1400 years ago.

I’m here to let you know that you don’t have to put yourself through this. There’s a middle ground that is both more honest and more comfortable: divorcing your Islamic belief from your Muslim identity.

Why must young Muslims have to subscribe to an infallible, unquestionable belief system in order to stay part of their families and communities? Why must they be excommunicated from their own lives for thinking differently? How can we expect these young men and women to move forward if simply disagreeing with the rest of the club carries the risk of lifelong isolation, ostracization, and even harsh punishment?

There needs to be a way for Muslim youth to be able to think freely, question ideas, and come to different conclusions without having to lose their sense of identity or their connection to the life and people that they love. We need to let reformist Muslims, secular Muslims, questioning Muslims, agnostic/atheist Muslims, and ex-Muslims into the dialogue on Islam, to make it as diverse, varied, and complex as the Muslim world itself.

I understand if this sounds strange, contradictory, or impossible to you. At one point, it did to me too. But do take the time to think about it — and be truly honest with yourself.

Yes, loyalty to your loved ones and your people is a noble virtue. But being unwaveringly loyal to an ideology or a belief system shackles the mind, fetters the intellect, and taints the conscience. When the two come packaged together, you’re being asked to give up your intellectual independence and your freedom to think and make your own choices for admission to the club. And because you’ve been in the club since you were a child, choosing that freedom too often means getting kicked out of it. Does that sound fair to you?

It may take some time to wrap your head around this. Un-learning years of religious upbringing isn’t an easy thing to do. As you read this, you may have countless counter-arguments and disagreements developing in your mind. That’s okay. It’s healthy, and it’s actually the only way to go through this process. I’ve been there too.

But please do think about it. When the realization finally comes, it is exhilarating and liberating. Enlightenment is the best rush there is. And once you get to the other side, you’ll see a lot of us here to welcome you — including those closeted within your own families and communities whom you may never even have known existed. You will be appreciated not only for your honesty and consistency, but for your loyalty to yourself.

Happy Ramadan, and happy Eid. I’ll be celebrating with you.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.