Raised in Boulder, Colorado, G. Willow Wilson moved to Egypt and converted to Islam shortly after college. Having written extensively on modern religion and the Middle East in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine, Wilson now shares her remarkable story of finding faith, falling in love, and marrying into a traditional Islamic family in this “intelligently written and passionately rendered memoir” (The Seattle Times, 27 Best Books of 2010).
Despite her atheist upbringing, Willow always felt a connection to god. Around the time of 9/11, she took an Islamic Studies course at Boston University, and found the teachings of the Quran astounding, comforting, and profoundly transformative. She decided to risk everything to convert to Islam, embarking on a journey across continents and into an uncertain future.
Settling in Cairo where she taught English, she soon met and fell in love with Omar, a passionate young man with a mild resentment of the Western influences in his homeland. Torn between the secular West and Muslim East, Willow—with her shock of red hair, shaky Arabic, and Western candor—struggled to forge a “third culture” that might accommodate her values as well as her friends and family on both sides of the divide.
Part travelogue, love story, and memoir, “Wilson has written one of the most beautiful and believable narratives about finding closeness with God” (The Denver Post).
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We say unto it: Be! And it is.
— Quran 16:40
In a way, I was in the market for a philosophy. Five months into my sophomore year of college at Boston University I was hospitalized, in the middle of the night, for a rare and acute reaction to a Depo Provera injection I'd received several days earlier. Up until then I'd been lucky enough never to see the inside of an emergency room. The most dangerous things I'd ever done were take the Chinatown-to-Chinatown bus from Boston to New York, walk home alone late at night once or twice, and get my lower lip pierced at a dimly lit shop in some basement off Commonwealth Avenue. At the turn of the millennium, even rebellion was fairly sanitary. Landing in the hospital because of legal medication seemed like a violation of the way things were supposed to work.
For days I was in and out of doctors' offices with the mostly untreatable symptoms of adrenal distress: heart palpitations, sudden attacks of sweating and dizziness, and insomnia so severe that no amount of tranquilizer could keep me asleep for more than four or five hours. In a blow to my vanity, I was losing hair. Later I would learn that I was also losing bone mass. At seventeen I was immortal; at eighteen I was a short and arbitrary series of events.
I wasn't very good with pain. And having always been the kind of person who could catnap at will, I wasn't very good with sleep deprivation, either. By chance, the three people who watched over me most diligently during the first days of my illness — a classmate, his mother, and a nurse — were all Iranian. Semidelirious, I took this as a sign. Addressing a God I had never spoken to in my life, I promised that if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim.
As it happened, the adrenal distress lasted a year and a half.
It was this unanswered prayer that sparked my interest in organized religion. I had been raised an atheist but was never very good at it. As a child I had precognitive dreams about mundane events like the deaths of pets, and I could not remember a time when I was not in love with whatever sat behind the world. Yet God was taboo in my parents' house; we were educated, and educated people don't believe in nonsense. Both of my parents came from conservative Protestant families. They left their churches during the Vietnam era, sick of the racist warmongering peddled from the pulpits. To them, God was a bigoted, vengeful white man. Refusing to believe in him was not just scientifically correct, it was morally imperative.
I learned to hide, deny, or dress up all experiences I could not explain. In high school a fatuous brand of neo-paganism was popular, thanks to movies like The Craft; this gave my heretical impulses a temporary outlet. By the time I was in my late teens I had adopted the anemic mantra "spiritual but not religious." I couldn't have told you what it meant.
Three days turned into three weeks. Doctors told me to sit tight — the Depo injection was effective for three months, and it might take another several months after that for my body to rebalance itself. I tired easily. Assignments that once took a few hours to complete now took days; walking from campus to my dorm left me exhausted. Twilight began to look bleak, the precursor of dark empty hours without sleep. Being eighteen and fortunate, it was a struggle to realize that this was not the end of everything. And, in fact, it wasn't. Since the big things were enough trouble, I began to let the small things slide. I went out without makeup. I stopped going to all the parties I didn't really care about. An alchemical process was taking place that I didn't quite understand. By small increments, my sense of humor and ability to cope were coming back, along with a new interest in the God who had not answered my prayers.
"I guess the Almighty doesn't bargain," I said one day to Elizabeth, who lived down the hall. We were on our way to Eli Wiesel's annual lecture on the Book of Job, about which we had to write a paper.
"Not with miserable sinners," she said cheerfully. She was Episcopalian.
"There is such a thing as respect, you know." Javad, whose steady supply of dining hall cookies and sympathy helped prompt my brush with Islam, appeared behind us with some other students from our section. "Even if God is only a hypothetical to you." He was a serious person, and smoked Djarum Blacks; he was not amused by my attitude toward the whole thing.
"I'm being respectful," I said. "I was serious. Hypotheti-cally serious."
"So you feel like hypothetical God abandoned you?" He raised one eyebrow.
"No, I don't. But I'm having trouble understanding why that is."
"Of course you don't. You can't feel abandoned by a God you don't believe in," Elizabeth pointed out. I shook my head.
"I'm not sure it's that simple."
We found seats in the middle of the lecture hall just as Dr. Wiesel was being introduced. Since we were humanities students, the idea of listening to a lecture on Job was not all that terrifying. We had already faced Confucius, the Stoics, and the Bhagavad Gita and come through relatively unscathed. But as Dr. Wiesel talked about the role of suffering in God's covenant with the Jews, I began to feel uncomfortable.
"I don't think that's what it means," I muttered.
"What?" Elizabeth frowned at me.
"Job. I don't think that's what it's about. I think it's about —"
Someone several rows back made a shushing noise.
"I think it's about monotheism," I said, "the idea that faith in the God of mercy is also faith in the God of destruction. God causes Job's suffering, not the devil."
The shushing became more insistent. I slumped in my seat, dissatisfied.
When I made my desperate offer to trade faith for health, I had not read a word of the Quran. My otherwise exhaustive liberal education skipped right over it. The professors I queried said teaching the Quran as a work of literature angered Muslim students and put everybody at risk. I was skeptical of this answer. When we studied the Bible, it was as a work of holy literature, and there was a level of respect and suspension of disbelief in our discussions. If the Quran was afforded the same treatment, I had trouble believing Muslim students would be so ominously displeased. The few that I knew — Javad and one or two others — seemed benign enough. Through them, I had picked up some stray facts: I knew there were two major sects of Islam, and I knew not all Muslims were Arabs. But I knew almost nothing about what they believed, and even with a $30,000-a-year education, I had no idea Islam was the world's second-largest religion.
I began to investigate Islam on my own, and tried to understand the relationship of the three Abrahamic traditions. The beliefs of my religious friends, once a source of silent pity, were now fascinating: I wanted to know about the Trinity and the Eucharist and the Jewish concept of the afterlife. I discovered opinions I did not know I held.
"If there is one omniscient omnipotent God, why send a holy spirit to impregnate Mary? Why the extra step? Couldn't He just cause her to become spontaneously pregnant? Isn't that what omnipotence is? Why do people always point up when they talk about Heaven? If heaven is up there, where is it in China? Down? Where is it on the moon? How could there be such a thing as inherited sin? Isn't that a fundamentally unjust idea?" I was persistent, maybe even rude, and my questions were often met with ruffled silence. These are questions atheists often use to dismantle religion, but to me, they were urgent attempts to name what I was finding harder and harder to ignore.
I had been taught that it was weak minded to believe the world was created by an invisible man with superpowers. But what if God was not an invisible man with superpowers? Atheism had never taught me how to answer that question. It had only taught me to reject primitive little -g gods; anthropomorphized, local entities subject to the laws of time and space — it had taught me, in other words, to reject Zeus and the Keebler elves. And the God to whom I had prayed so desperately was not Zeus.
When I prayed, maybe I was trying to justify a belief I already held. Being ill had shaken something loose in my head. Sitting up at night under dark windows, my perceptions had altered. My body was no longer an infinite resource but a union of thousands of fragile things, chemicals and precursors and proteins, all in a balance that could easily be upset. That so many people were well — that I had been well for so long — seemed miraculous.
Illnesses usually bring people to religion through the front door; mine brought me through the back. I did not need to know if I was being punished or tested. Neither my health nor my illness was about me. The force that played havoc with the cortisol in my blood was the same force that helped my body recover; if I felt better one day and worse the next, it was unchanged. It chose no side. It gave the girl next to me in the hospital pneumonia; it also gave her white blood cells that would resist the infection. And the atoms in those cells, and the nuclei in those atoms, the same bits of carbon that were being spun into new planets in some corner of space without a name. My insignificance had become unspeakably beautiful to me.
That unified force was a God too massive, too inhuman, to resist with the atheism in which I had been brought up. I became a zealot without a religion. It was unclear to me whether there was a philosophy big enough for monotheism so adamant. It had to be a faith that didn't need to struggle to explain why bad things happen to good people, a faith in which it was understood that destruction is implicit in creation. I had a faint attraction to Buddhism, but Buddhism was not theist enough; the role of God was obscure or absent. I would have liked to be a Christian. My life would have been much easier if I could stomach the Trinity and inherited sin, or the idea that God had a son. Judaism was a near perfect fit, but it was created for a single tribe of people. Most practicing Jews I knew took a dim view of conversion. To them, membership in the historical community of Jews was as important as belief.
In Islam, which encouraged conversion, there were words for what I believed. Tawhid, the absolute unity of God. Al Haq, the truth so true it had no corresponding opposite, truth that encompassed both good and evil. There were no intermediary steps in the act of creation, God simply said, Kun, fa yakun. "Be, so it is." I began to have a feeling of déjà vu. It was as if my promise to become a Muslim was not a coincidence but a kind of inversion; a future self speaking through a former self.
It was a feeling that intensified as I stood in front of a vending machine in my Warren Towers dorm in the spring of my illness, on the verge of an epiphany. Another girl in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms stood in front of me with a deflated expression.
"Screw this," she said, punching the glass that divided her from the Almond Joy stuck inside, dangling by its wrapper. She sighed and turned away, muttering "Good luck," as she passed. Her T-shirt read, "Why does it always rain on me?" Apparently she had dressed for this moment of synchronicity.
I punched in the code for a Snickers. As it fell, it hit the trapped Almond Joy. When I pushed in the flap at the bottom of the machine I saw two candy bars, side by side. I looked around for the other girl, but she was gone.
"Kun," I said to no one, and laughed. "Kun fa yakun."
At that moment, the girl with the synchronous T-shirt was more upset about losing her candy bar than I was about having osteopenia, low bone mineral density. The moral microcosm of Warren Towers seemed profoundly balanced. What I had suffered was so slight compared to so many people; how appropriate that all I got for it was an Almond Joy.
I had just read a verse of the Quran about rizq, which translates as "sustenance," but has threads of destiny and fortune running through it. "Oh you who believe, partake of the good things We have provided for you as sustenance, and give thanks to God, if it is truly Him that you worship." With an infinitesimal shift in probability, an invisible wink, a little rizq had been redistributed. The world seemed without contradiction. It was called into being, kun, with pain and synchronicity and malfunctioning vending machines already written on it. I was abandoning my ability to distinguish between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic.
At home in Colorado that summer, I got a new tattoo. An artist named Fish inked Al Haq across my lower back in Arabic calligraphy, talking to me as he worked to keep my mind off the pain. I had signed up to take Arabic in the fall; in the interim I taught myself part of the alphabet out of an old textbook, to make sure I knew what I was putting on my body. Al Haq joined another tattoo designed by a kabbalist from Rhode Island, who gave me my first ink at seventeen after I showed him a fake ID. He had told me that nobody gets two tattoos — they either get one or they get lots. I would get two more before I quit, making the first in a series of difficult negotiations between art and religious law. As it is in Judaism, tattooing is frowned upon in mainstream Islam. The body is God's creation, and therefore perfect; any medically unnecessary alteration is seen as an affront. I'm glad I didn't know that when I decided to get this tattoo, because I'm not sure it would have stopped me.
Al Haq was a note to myself that I could not erase. As I got healthier, it would be easy to forget this part of my life, to go back to thinking the world contained only me and whatever I wanted at any given moment. Now I had a permanent physical reminder. One day I would work up the courage to convert. I wasn't ready yet — I still had chemical and social crutches, and it would take time to learn to live without them. When they were gone, though, I knew what I had to be.CHAPTER 2
The White Horse
Zuljanah walked forward a few steps and stopped. Husayn stroked the horse's white neck and said, "My faithful horse, I know you are thirsty and tired. You have been carrying me since morning. My faithful horse, for the last time, take me to the battlefield."
— Islamic folktale
Back at Bu three weeks later, i woke up to a Strange piece of news on the BBC World Service: Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghani resistance leader who kept the Taliban at bay in the north for almost two decades, had been shot by men posing as journalists. I had been following his life for a class, and knew how important he was in the Afghan struggle against the Taliban and its allies. I was surprised that more attention was not paid to the cleverly staged attack that brought about his death. In all probability, it had been carried out by his fundamentalist enemies. The fact that they could come up with a plan so canny and sophisticated was a little scary.
If working adults were graded on their knowledge of current events the way college juniors are, we would live in a very different world. I felt a kind of nausea that begins between your eyes, like vertigo; the experience you have when you see a car skid across the center line and can picture the crash that is about to take place. Massoud's death was not the endgame; it couldn't be. He had been eliminated in preparation for something else.
It was September 11, 2001, at about eight thirty in the morning.
Boston is rarely part of the conversation about the attacks, but guilt was palpable in the streets afterward. The terrorists who hit the South Tower flew out of Logan Airport, the terrorists had been in Boston not two hours earlier, the terrorists could have been stopped here — people spoke as though they had been personally negligent. Then there was the paranoia: it was rumored that another terrorist cell was still in the city. We were to be quarantined, cut off from bridges and rail routes until the cell could be found. A few hysterical BU students rushed to South Station to catch trains home "before they shut everything down." There was no cell and no quarantine. But F-15s flew overhead, deafeningly low, and the sirens never stopped. My parents left a number of terrified messages on my phone, afraid I might have gone to New York to visit friends at NYU, as I sometimes did on weekends. I sent e-mails in return, begging them to obey the official request to stay off the phones.
With remarkable foresight, the chancellor of BU kept classes in session that day, becoming one of the first to argue that if we disrupted our way of life we would be helping the terrorists. And so, at three p.m., I went to the Arabic class I'd signed up for the previous spring, carrying a textbook whose title began with a big scarlet A.
The next evening I made dinner plans at the student union with Ben, another history major. I brought my Arabic homework, but lost interest as soon as I opened the book. I jumped when Ben tossed his bag on the chair opposite mine and sat down.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Butterfly Mosque"
Copyright © 2010 G. Willow Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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