21 January 2014

Willow Wilson's Egypt

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Special edition of Uprising (Uprising Radio) hosted by Alan Minsky on Willow Wilson’s debut novel, Alif the Unseen, July 24, 2012 Special edition of Uprising (Uprising Radio) hosted by Alan Minsky on Willow Wilson’s debut novel, Alif the Unseen, July 24, 2012 http://uprisingradio.org/home/2012/07/24/alif-the-unseen/

I have now finished leading the five (well attended) public library discussions in the series “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. I devoted blogs to the first two books (Prince Among Slaves and Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith)

I now turn to the last two, and here, The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson.

I don’t believe you are serious about interfaith dialog unless you can sincerely understand people who convert to another faith and you can see how that faith enriches their lives. If you’ve followed my blogs, you know I don’t subscribe to theological pluralism – all religious paths go up the same mountain and ultimately lead to the summit. Rather, I believe that all religions make truth claims, which often clash with truth claims made by other traditions. Islam and Christianity have much in common, but they disagree about each other’s central claims – Jesus and the cross on one side, and Muhammad and the Qur’an on the other.

But true respect of the religious "other" demands an effort to listen with great emphathy. That’s why, whatever your faith commitment, you should read conversion accounts in order to understand as much from the inside as possible how others live their faith. And if you’re a Christian, in particular, you should read The Butterfly Mosque. Well, I’ll give you three other reasons to read it:


1. It’s beautifully written, and if you like a good romance, you’ll definitely like this one! Wilson is an artist, and a very accomplished one at that despite her young age (b. in 1982), in three genres so far: 1) her graphic novel Cairo (2007) was named one of the 2009 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens by the American Library Association; 2) her comic series Air was nominated for the Eisner Award; 3) her first novel, Alif the Unseen, won the 2013 World Fantasy Award (see picture above). Then one more award: this autobiography was named Best Book of the Year by the Seattle Times (Wilson now lives with her husband and two daughters in Seattle). She’s now writing a Marvel comic series whose heroin is a Muslim teenage girl.


2. Wilson leads you deep into the cultural recesses of Egyptian society. As someone who lived there three years starting in 1989, I was completely fascinated. Within weeks she falls in love with an Egyptian fellow teacher and, with the blessing of his clan, is married to him the next year.


3. Here is a finely textured reading of Egypt’s diverse Muslim currents. During the months Willow and her roommate Jo lived in the poorer and xenophobic neighborhood of Tura, they had ample opportunity to explore their feelings toward the islamists – whether the more puritanical Salafis or the more political Muslim Brotherhood types. As a journalist, she was twice given the chance to interview Egypt’s highest cleric, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa; and on another occasion, deep into the desert near the Libyan border, she interviewed the female leader of a Sufi order.


Without spoiling the book for you – I do want you to read it – let me expand a bit more on what I just wrote. And because it’s such an intimate story, I’ll use her first name, Willow.


The Islam Willow embraced

Raised in a staunchly atheist home in Colorado, Willow felt deep down that there must be some kind of higher power. A prolonged illness that ate up a good part of her college career at Boston University only sharpened the gnawing questions in her soul. Just a few days into her treatment, the three people who best cared for her were Iranians:


“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” (p. 7).


What her bodily weakness did for her, however, was to open her eyes to the infinite. “My insignificance had become unspeakably beautiful to me,” she discovered. She goes on,


“I had a faint attraction to Buddhism, but Buddhism wasn’t theistic 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” (pp. 12-13).


As you read through the book, you discover a woman who has “surrendered” to God (the meaning of islam), but is wary of human authorities. She remains a practicing Sunni Muslim woman, conservative in some ways, yet always willing to probe deeper and farther afield. She even convinces her husband to let her travel alone for a 3-week reporter’s trip through Iran (two chapters in the book), providing an evocative encounter with Shia Muslims in a land of beautiful gardens over which a pall of sadness seems to hang.


Willow’s Egypt

You will love the people seen through Willow’s eyes, warts and all. You’ll envy the layers of communal protection and kindness that extended families provide – reservoirs of wisdom, and at times, of bigotry. But here I focus on Willow’s depiction of the “fundamentalists” – I think that is relevant to what I’m trying to do on this website. I want to provide as much context and inside perspective for you (especially western Christians), in order to understand how incredibly diverse the world of Muslims really is, culturally, theologically, and religiously (e.g., its mystical practices, like Sufism, and many of its local, pre-Islamic folk practices). Not all Muslims are of the same cloth, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Willow comes to the conclusion, fairly early on, that she should inform her colleagues, whether Egyptians or internationals, about her conversion to Islam. “There would be no avoiding the crisis when it came, so I decided to force it. I ran up the flag, so to speak, by putting on hijab,” she tells us.

This deliberate act of “coming out,” as she puts it, did cause quite a stir. Many Egyptian Muslims were thrilled, as you might imagine, but not all. That is because the scarf she chose to wear that day, in typical Willow fashion, was “apple red, a color that ensured my ultra-conservative colleagues [I add, those identifying with the Salafi movement] would be as shocked as my non-Muslim ones” (p. 107).

Then she chooses to contrast “moderates” and fundamentalists” (or “ultraconservatives” – but prior to 2011, the Salafis had not yet entered politics, and many continue to shun it). In her words, “My moderate Muslim colleagues and friends – moderate is a terrible word, since many of them are very passionate about their religion – accepted me without a batted eye . . . They simply began to greet me with as-salaamu alaykum instead of ‘hi’, and included me in the silent glances that would go around the room when secular or western coworkers launched into critiques of religion.”

The next paragraph is so very illuminating, as it could be easily transcribed into many other religious contexts. Converts are “sitting ducks” for well-meaning archconservatives, who relish the opportunity to reengineer the lives and identity of these hapless souls:


"Converts are a favorite prey of fundamentalists; they are often isolated, confused, and in need of reassurance, which radical Muslims are only too happy to give. In my case, they were confused. The way I wore my scarf, and the colors I chose, made it clear I was not crying out for help or seeking support … It must have been disturbing to radicals that a convert could find mere Islam more appealing than their tight-knit community. This is the death knell of radicalism: Muslims who have achieved a personal understanding of the religion can inspire doubt in extremists simply by standing in front of them. It’s a simple fact, but one with the potential to change the world” (p. 108).


Tura, the above-mentioned section of Cairo, is home to the infamous prison that houses (and routinely tortures) political prisoners in the thousands. In those days they were mostly Muslim Brothers – as they are still today, ironically. That’s also where Mubarak stayed with his two sons after the revolution toppled him. This is the setting where Willow is led to meditate further on the “fundamentalists.” For one thing, the neighborhood mosque was excruciatingly loud. Here I have to quote her witty, satirical prose:


“This mosque we quickly came to hate. Its muezzin announced the five daily prayer times in gravelly shrieks, broadcast at full volume over a set of speakers that were comically expensive and well-maintained when compared to the degree of poverty in which so many of the mosque’s attendees lived. To call this institution a fundamentalist mosque sounds almost tongue-in-cheek; it was rabidly conservative, and if it had been situated in a less neglected neighborhood, there’s a chance its leaders would now reside in the prison just half a kilometer away. As it was, Tura was a convenient location for extremism to fester, and so we awoke promptly at four a.m. every morning to the screams of the muezzin, who rattled windows and set dogs to howling for a considerable radius. Few people ever complained. Most were too afraid of the extremists to speak up; the rest were too worn down by the brutality of daily life in a poor neighborhood in a police state to be bothered. And daily life was brutal. There is no kinder word for it” (pp. 122-3).


This harsh living experience for Willow and Jo did offer some insights on “why they hate us,” as Americans were asking after 9/11. The antiwesternism that is endemic to the Middle East (as I can attest myself) goes like this: “the vast majority resent [the West] because they perceive it to be a military and economic juggernaut bombing countries into rubble, putting local industries out of business (though this title is slowly passing to China), and succeeding and succeeding where the Middle East fails. Religion never enters the discussion” (p. 135).

This is in complete contrast to the islamists (she doesn’t use that term):


“On the other hand, the fundamentalists we could see from our bathroom window hated us for very religious reasons. It became clear to me, living in the shadow of that brainless minaret, how little the anger of our local extremists had to do with military America. While the situation in Iraq gave them political legitimacy and direction, and a dangerous amount of emotional leverage with average Muslims, it was not the reason they were angry. They hated the America that exports culture. They were aghast at the suggestion that enlightenment could be bought on tape, and that right and wrong were fluid and could change from situation to situation. They hated being made to sympathize with adulterous couples in American movies. They hated the materialism that was spreading through Egypt and the Gulf like a parasite, turning whole cities – Dubai, Jeddah – into virtual shopping malls, and blamed this materialism on western influence


All of this is true, I concur. But there is more to it, at least if you want to include the jihadis – which you should. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence after their “great persecution” in 1954 (the fitna) and as an organization it has kept to that course. That they are losing many younger elements to a more radical ideology since last summer’s military government’s massacre of more than a thousand of them is clear as well. But my point is that Sayyid Qutb’s more radical ideology hatched in the 1950s and early 1960s in the shade of the 1954 fitna harkens back to centuries past when the world was truly divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War (see my two blogs on jihad, “Holy Wars: Israelites versus bin Laden,” and “Jihad Revisited”). So there’s a way theology and law got tied up in the past to justify aggressive military campaigns and Sayyid Qutb’s revamping it in modern garb stands ready to use for the more radically inclined among islamists.

Despite that needed addition, I wholeheartedly recommend The Butterfly Mosque. It will open for you a captivating window into the lives of Egyptians, their hopes, their dreams, the kindness they dispense so naturally, and the brutal hardships that come with their territory. And, more importantly, you’ll get to know Willow herself. That, you won’t regret!