Verdict: An illuminating glimpse into one American woman’s decision to convert to Islam. Beautifully written and totally honest.
Perfect for: People who read the utterly wonderful Alif the Unseen and, like me, became fascinated about the author, G. Willow Wilson. People interested in spirituality or issues of cultural identity. Anyone who likes a good memoir.
Summary: (from Goodreads:) When G. Willow Wilson—already an accomplished writer on modern religion and the Middle East at just twenty-seven—leaves her atheist parents in Denver to study at Boston University, she enrolls in an Islamic Studies course that leads to her shocking conversion to Islam and sends her on a fated journey across continents and into an uncertain future.
She settles in Cairo where she teaches English and submerges herself in a culture based on her adopted religion. And then she meets Omar, a passionate young man with a mild resentment of the Western influences in his homeland. They fall in love, entering into a daring relationship that calls into question the very nature of family, belief, and tradition. Torn between the secular West and Muslim East, Willow records her intensely personal struggle to forge a “third culture” that might accommodate her own values without compromising the friends and family on both sides of the divide.
I was raised as an agnostic Transcendentalist humanist, but I’ve always been interested in religion and spirituality as a topic. Islam is a subject I know little about, but after reading Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, I just HAD to know more about it. Wilson’s memoir is open-eyed about the beauties of her religion and the ways that some people who profess to follow Islam misinterpret it. I was particularly surprised to learn that some within Islam argue that the Qur’an is sex-positive and in some ways very empowering to women. I also loved learning that non-fundamental Muslims love discussing the meanings of the Qur’an and are open to dissent and debate. But more than shifting my perceptions of Islam, Wilson’s story is at heart a love story: the story of how to be brave enough to nurture love in the most challenging of situations. Not just romantic love with Omar, but the love she seeks to maintain with her confused American family and friends, and with her new Egyptian family and friends who have varying degrees of acceptance towards American converts to Islam. Wilson’s story also brought Cairo to life for me, and as turmoil continues in that region, it makes me care about the people there in a more intimate way than before I read this book.
Really the only thing that bothered me about this book was that Wilson tends to clump Atheists and Agnostics into one snarky, intolerant bunch. Obviously, Wilson is relating her particular experience, and in her life the non-religious people were unilaterally dismissive about faith. I just wish that the book recognized that there are non-believers out there that see religion as fascinating and as an understandable choice. Wilson seemed to indicate that she grew up in an environment where Atheism was the norm, and being spiritual was a derided minority. But I think for most Atheists and Agnostics in the United States, that tension is flipped and non-believers are derided and excluded socially and professionally from not being part of a community religious majority. But obviously intolerance sucks either way. I just wish this was made more clear in this lovely book.