Willow Wilson was an atheist. A Goth and then became a Muslim convert that bears a tattoo “Al Haq” meaning “The truth” across her lower back. Note 1
After graduating from university, Willow Wilson, a young American — and newly converted Muslim — impulsively accepts a teaching position in Cairo. There, she meets Omar, a passionate young nationalist with a degree in astrophysics. Omar introduces Willow to the bustling city, and through him she discovers a young, moderate nationalist movement, a movement that both wants to divest itself of western influence and regain cultural pride. When the two find themselves unexpectedly in love, despite their deep cultural differences, they decide that they will try to forge a third culture, a new landscape that will embrace some of each of their cultures, and give their fledgling romance some hope of survival.
Wilson wrote some powerful statements that make me want to quote a whole chunk of the book that may serves as a light of beacon through confusing cultural manoeuvres; and the book is also trying to fulfil several tall orders.
First, it is an account of intellectual and emotional tussle to understand the contradictory beliefs and values between the society the person is brought up and a totally different society that one is married into.
More often than not, Egyptian culture and American culture demanded opposite things. American men kiss women on the cheek in the greeting, for example, but not other men. In Egypt the opposite is true. Each side claims that a kiss on the cheek is not sexual, which raises a questions: why, then should Egyptian men refrain from kissing women, or American men be afraid to kiss other men? This conflict, and others like it, exposed an exasperating truth: cultural habits are by and large irrational, emerge irrationally, and are practiced irrationally. They are independent of the intellect, and trying to fit them into a logical pattern is fruitless; they can be respected or discarded, but not debated. Culture belongs to the imagination, to judge it rationally is to misunderstand its function. (page 79)
In a way, Willow is saying that a lot of Muslim practice stems out of cultural practices and the line between what the culture says and what the religion actually says can be blur.
Second, it is an account on how Willow reconciles a devout and conservative lifestyle with contemporary highly secular society.
Controversy is what mediocre people start because they can’t communicate anything meaningful. I want consensus. Controversy is seen as the best thing for a writer’s career short of actual success, and the fact that I was so upset by it must have been a little baffling. But I didn’t want to be fashionable, I wanted to be accurate. I didn’t understand the literary economy that had built up around Muslim and ex-Muslim writers in the West: there was a market for outrage and anyone who created it, whether by condemning Islam or apologising for it, was considered in vogue. Remaining a Muslim professional rather than a professional Muslim – was going to be a challenge. – page 261.
Third, it is a personal account of a feeling of displacement in a foreign land with foreign culture, with no fixed cultural reference to cling on to.
Jhumpa Lahiri calls living in a foreign country “an eternal pregnancy”; an uncomfortable wait for something impossible to define. As the months passed, I realised how astute that observation was. – page 213.
The actually passage that I saved in my wordpress draft since April 2009 is this:
“Though no longer pregnant, she continues, at times, to mix Rice Krispies and peanuts and onions in a bowl. For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.” – Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake.
All these added to my amazement to Wilson’s reading taste as she quoted from my favourite books from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, Naguib Mahfouz, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History etc. etc.
Of the many books I read about Muslim experience in an adopted land, I have yet to read one that appeals to me emotionally and intellectually like Willow’s personal account of her religious conversion and marriage to a man whose religion and culture seems to be at odd with the one she is brought up with. Wilson strikes a beautiful balance between intellect and emotion appeal, and the book is laid out and fulfilled all the tall orders of what this book wants to be, vividly and beautifully.
My personal experience made it easy for me to understand what she meant when she compares the cultural differences. Wilson uses metaphor and example to describe the differences which makes reader understand it better and made me resonates greatly about what she said, especially with her in-law’s cultural references. Take this passage for example, when outsiders of the culture think that Arab women has no rights in their society:
I got up and let one of the littlest cousins tie a bell-covered scarf around my hips, feeling lucky to be alive at this moment among these people. It was such a tantalizing contradiction, being a woman in the Middle East – far less free than a woman in the West, but far more appreciated. When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way women who don’t follow the rules are punished, and fail to consider the way women who do follow the rules are rewarded. When I finished an article or essay, all I received was an email from an editor saying, “Thanks, got it.” When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands. – page 250.
There is a caveat to this however. How quickly Wilson manage to assimilate into her new family was by virtue of her patience, reasoning and understanding, also her willingness to conform. Not every woman is willing to do that. Her husband is considered slightly more westernised (with the same brand and taste of music as Wilson’s) than his Egyptian counterparts. I can’t help but to wonder if Wilson was less patient, more feminist, more likely to abandon the responsibility of being fully in-charge with the housework 24 x 7, would she ever come to accept her new family this wholeheartedly?
This passage may challenge the commonly held feminist thinking:
I could understand, now, why so many women in the Middle East were suspicious of women’s rights movements and western feminism. Why push for rights when you have influence? A gutsy, intelligent woman in the Middle East can steer the fortunes of her entire family with a minimum of exposure and risk; giving her a full complement of western rights would limit the scope of her power by exposing her to the same public scrutiny as men. Rights would put the flaky and the idiotic on equal footing with the worthy and the able; what was the point? At a time of tremendous change and instability, why cause more disruptions? You might end with less than you started out with. – page 271
The blurb says: “Although Wilson immersed herself in Islamic culture – learning Arabic, worshipping as a Muslim and adopting a veil – she never rejected her Western identity. Drawing together the values of both cultures, she began to move in the world as a liberal and outspoken Muslim woman, a curious mixture of East and West.” It is presumptuous to say that it is a “curious mixture” for the Quran advocates that believers walk the middle way and become moderate Muslim and gave more rights to women than what the general public would like to think. It also means taking the best of both East and West and become a moderate, progressive and tolerant person that the humanity in this troubled world desperately needs.
I thought this was a poignant, honest and an entertaining memoir. Not only does it address both religion and cultural acceptance, its central message impel us to seek within our hearts and see the world through our own eyes and accept and embrace peace between fellow human beings, rather than being clouded by what the media or religious institutions (including misguided Islamic organisations) says about Islam and Muslim.
I cannot recommend this book any better than to say “go read it and see the world with a new pairs of eyes.”
– Once the world rewards reckless faith, no lesser world is worth contemplating – page 49. –
Note 1: tattoo is forbidden in Muslim practice.
Hardback. Publisher: Atlantic Books 2010; Length: 304 pages; Setting: Contemporary Egypt. Source: Westminster Library copy. Finished reading on: 5th May 2011.
I’m reading this for both Non-fiction and Middle East Reading Challenges.
Claire@The Captive Reader: Wilson has a refreshing, appealing, centrist view, one that could be more accessible to the average reader than many of the other modern perspectives on Islam (generally one extreme or another)
Maphead Book Blog: Fortunately, Wilson lacks much of the smug self-assuredness which has been known to plague some religious converts.
Darvish: Willow’s descriptive and analytical powers are at once affectionate and insightful.
Everyday hijabi: Wilson weaves this engaging personal story with deep insights into faith in a fractured world, and gives westerners rare insight into an important young reform movement.
Reading Through Life: Wilson’s memoir touches on a variety of topics, but what she does the best is illustrate the so-called “clash of civilizations” and the effects that this has on her own life.
Muslimah Media Watch: Wilson’s prose is fluid and beautifully describes the nuances of everyday life she experiences while in Egypt.
About the writer:
G. Willow Wilson was born in New Jersey 1982. After graduating with a degree in History and coursework in Arabic language and literature, she moved to Cairo, where she became a contributor to the Egyptian opposition weekly Cairo Magazine until it closed in 2005. She has written for politics and culture blogs across the political spectrum, and is the author of a graphic novel, Cairo, illustrated by M.L. Perker, and a series of comics, based on her own experiences for DC comics.
Most excellent and thoughtful review 🙂
Darvish, Thank you. 🙂
I’ve seen this on a few blogs, but yours is the first that has made me want to rush out and get a copy. I love books that make me look at the world in a new light 🙂
Jackie, Awww.. thanks for the kind words Jackie. I am trying to put in a few more reviews.. I know I have seen more reviews than what I have listed.. but I can’t find them, not even in google. Willow is very level headed and very intellectual, albeit young. I find myself nodding my head while reading, she has a way to put complicated subject matter in simple words. Caveat: I have to borrow the book from Westminster Library though, not an easy book to find in the local library. 😉
Wonderful review, Jo! I am adding this to my ‘TBR’ list. I love the fact that you discover new fascinating books and introduce it to the rest of us to read. I loved this line that you have quoted – “When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands.” – very beautiful and very true! I also loved the last passage on feminist thinking that you have quoted – it explains a delicate situation beautifully.
As usual, I have one (controversial) comment on religion 🙂 I think all major religions which are practised today originated in the east – whether it is Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or Confucianism or Sikhism or Jainism. The only religion that I know which originated in the west was what is today called ‘Paganism’ which died away in Europe after the advent of Christianity. (I recently read though that it is enjoying a revival in Nordic countries like Iceland). Sometimes when people contrast Christianity and Islam (implying that the former came from the west and the latter from the east), I can’t help asking ‘Aren’t they both from the east? Wasn’t Jesus a Middle-Eastern oriental guy?’
Vishy, my pleasure. I like to steer away from mainstream unless some newly published books really really pique my interest! 🙂
Thank you for sharing your thoughts about East and West. Strongly encourage anyone who wants to validate your argument to go visit the Coptic churches in Egypt or Jordan; or Eastern Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia or Serbia.
The Coptic churches in Egypt are really wonderful and the Eastern Orthodox churches in Russia are awesome! For me the visit to an Eastern Orthodox church in Moscow during service was a real eye-opener and a beautiful experience.
I have seen this book around the blogosphere, but you’ve convinced me to add it to my (ever growing) TBR list! I also married into an arab family and it was such an interesting process to be a part of that process. We are now divorced, but I am still a part of that family. I think I would find this an interesting read. Thank you! And, thank you for posting it to the Middle East Reading Challenge!
It is indeed interesting to be part of the process, I am sure you can relate to Willow as she share some of her experience between the cultural clashes. Thank you for hosting the challenge Helen.
what a beautiful review. You make me want to read it.
I wonder did she find the religion or because her husband asked her to convert
Thanks! She converts before she found her husband which I found all the more amazing. You have to read this book. It is good. 🙂
ah….then she really is an amazing woman. I will try to search it in my frequent bookstores later.
I was lucky to be born in Muslim family and found the love for the my religion when I was in highschool, but I often wonder would I still be blessed with such love if I wasn’t born as Muslim. This thought is the one that made me always amaze with people who are converted in their own free will.
You are always tested in life, all the time, big time. That is how God loves you. Everytime you renew your faith, you are blessed with such love.
Thanks for your recommendation. I must look out for this.
Oh this sounds wonderful JoV – thanks!
Shellie, let me know if you pick this up!
Great review, Jo! Sounds like a fascinating view on living in another culture and a non-Western one at that. Also, she quotes The Secret History? I’m convinced! 😉
Bina, yes she did. She quotes from the Secret History!! 🙂