May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
May 21, 2019
My staunchly atheist parents dedicated themselves to raising atheist children in the heart of the Bible Belt. My father, a paleontologist, taught evolution at the local college and regularly saw his name mentioned by townspeople who wrote letters to the editor of the paper with fiery objections. Door-to-door evangelists canvassed the homes in our neighborhood, and during one suppertime visit, my father told them that we were not churchgoing people. Then, while my parents pulled the blinds and pretended that nothing was happening, the two young men in pressed shirts pounded on the door and yelled through it: “Your dinner can wait! Your souls cannot!”
At my elementary school, administrators got around church-and-state separations by arranging for a church bus to deliver weekly Bible study classes at the curb. It parked close enough that we could walk to it, but it was not technically on school property. When my parents learned that during these curbside classes we had to say we believed in Jesus, they pulled my brother and me from the Bible study. We were the only ones at our school who didn’t come out of the church bus with suckers as rewards for memorizing psalms. Our classmates became convinced that my entire family was going to hell.
My parents taught me and my brother that religion is a silly delusion. They taught us that people who didn’t have a basic understanding of the world’s religions were ignorant but so were the people who actively believed in them. I wanted to trust my parents, but I could feel God. I could reach out in prayer and feel a response, even as a child. That subjective experience overpowered my parents’ literal and metaphorical eye-rolling about faith.
One day in high school, I was listening to Cat Stevens and reading the jacket to his greatest hits album, Footsteps in the Dark. He wrote about the day he received a copy of the Koran from his brother: “The Quʾran was like no other book I had come across,” he said. “The words all seemed strangely familiar, and yet so unlike anything I had ever read before: but what moved me most was its message—the absolute and uncompromising belief in one universal God (Allah), the sole Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and the earth.”1 I wanted that sense of religious peace, and so I bought up his albums at Stairway to Heaven, a secondhand store that sold vinyl out of two small, dusty rooms in a downtown storefront. When I discovered he was running an Islamic primary school in London, I looked up the address in a phone book at the local public library and wrote to him.
Stevens sent me a cassette tape of his song “A is for Allah.” Starstruck, I felt moved to investigate the Koran myself. But as I leafed through the sacred text in a bookstore aisle, I didn’t have a revelatory experience, and I hesitated, not buying a copy that day. Yet I kept thinking about this absolute faith in one universal God, and I knew I needed to speak to someone about it. I found the phone book entry for the Islamic center in my neighborhood, and I called.
“Where could I get a copy of the Koran?” I asked, wrapping the long phone cord around my fingers.
“Come here, and I will give you one,” the man replied.
From the road, the Islamic Center looked small and simple, but inside it stretched long and deep. And it had a feel to it, a palpable holiness. The call to prayer, sung over the loudspeaker in Arabic, was so heartfelt that I responded to it emotionally even though I couldn’t understand the words. From the entryway, with its large shoe racks, I could see the plush carpeting of the worship space, which was separated along gender lines by floor-to-ceiling panels. Removing my shoes, I walked past school classrooms and a U-shaped kitchen that held a dozen spotless ovens. I was struck by the way that the intentional separation of men and women in this space weighted everything with a sense of quiet reverence, so unlike the social halls I’d experienced in Christian churches.
The man I’d spoken with on the phone met me in an outdoor courtyard and gave me a copy of the Koran. The text was dense, with Arabic on one side and English on the other, and the binding was a rich green, the color of Islam. I still have it. The man confidently asked for my phone number and said he would give it to an American sister. I felt relief at having made this connection, and my steps were light as I caught the bus back home, where I propped myself up on pillows and began reading the Koran.
To my delight, Sister Aisha followed up a few days later.2 That was her religious name; she’d been born Wendy Anderson. She invited me to Pizza Hut for dinner with her husband, Muhammad, and their infant daughter, Rabia. Aisha, in her late twenties, taught second graders at the mosque’s school. Muhammad, a little older, worked for the city. He was an immigrant from Turkey. She wore a long white hijab and ankle-length dress. I was awed by the way this set her off as a religiously observant person.
Just three days after my first nervous phone call to the Islamic Center, Aisha and Muhammad began the kind of religious education I’d been craving. Warm and friendly, they took my questions about God seriously. They explained the basic tenets of Islam, beginning with dietary laws. Instead of sausage or pepperoni, we ate our pizza with ground hamburger, because Muslims don’t eat pork. Hamburger and pineapple are still my favorite pizza toppings.
Aisha explained that Muslims all over the world pray five times a day, facing Mecca from wherever they are. I loved prayer. She explained that Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan. That sounded like a practice that would satisfy my need to fulfill a demanding religious requirement. They talked about the prophet Muhammad, and how he lived 1,500 years ago in what is now Saudi Arabia. Aisha told me that there are two main sources of knowledge about Islam: the Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed to Muhammad by God, and the Hadith, which are the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad and are a source of manners as well as law.
I began seeing more of Aisha, particularly at the mosque. We spent long hours discussing the beliefs and practices of Islam, and I felt completely comfortable with what she taught me and the readings she guided me through. She introduced me to many of the other sisters, American-born converts, students, and immigrants from all over the world.
As we met, I fell in love with Middle Eastern cuisine. I learned to flavor meat with the spices we use in cakes—cinnamon, allspice. I learned the secret of adding an egg to falafel batter to make it stick together better during frying. Hummus and pita were ubiquitous, and I became a connoisseur—I need garlic to keep my taste buds interested. One night, during a communal dinner at the mosque, a delightful and sweet concoction that resembled cream of wheat was passed around in paper cups. Someone said it was a Saudi confection.
Even apart from the new foods and friendships, I felt a new connection to God that made me feel whole. I knew that I had to respond to that sense of wholeness with action. At sixteen, I decided to convert. I envisioned a life of holiness, of being filled up with God. It just felt right. I felt awash with enthusiasm and certainty and approval, but the source of that approval—God or the Muslims around me—is not so easy to parse.
I chose not to discuss this decision with my parents. I had no problem with intellectual thoughtfulness, but I understood my faith as experiential, as the action of prayer, religious reading, ritual washing, and worship. Despite the difficulty of waking before sunrise to greet God, day after day, I found deep satisfaction in stopping my activities five times a day to commune with the Almighty. Even today, I believe in God because I can feel the divine—I believe in God because I trust both my feelings and my head. I didn’t need to consult my father’s science or my mother’s atheistic philosophy. I knew they wouldn’t approve, but I also knew they wouldn’t stand in my way.
I memorized the shahādah, or declaration of faith, in Arabic. Its words of commitment—“I testify that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger”—weighed heavily in my thoughts in the days leading up to my conversion, and I considered the theological implications carefully. By declaring those words I would become a Muslim, a member of a community one billion strong that stretches to every continent and has adherents among every race.
I prepared for the day of my conversion by sewing my first hijab. With uneven, amateurish stitching, I fashioned it out of a scarf I’d bought at a local shop. Afterward, I gratefully received gifts of headscarves in a variety of fashions from women in the ummah, or congregation. My dress was black, a color considered modest in much of the Muslim world. On a Friday after the regular service I was brought to the front corner of the women’s section of the mosque. The imam raised the burgundy fabric that separated us from the men’s section. I had never seen these floor-to-ceiling dividers opened before, so I was unprepared for how much larger the men’s area was. I took a deep breath as I looked into the sea of unfamiliar, inquisitive faces. Hundreds of my new brothers had turned around to watch me. I got down on my knees across from the imam, keeping my head bowed and responding to his questions as I had rehearsed with Aisha. My voice quaked.
The divider was closed again as the women came over one by one to congratulate me and kiss me on both cheeks. They smelled of expensive soaps and perfumes. I felt joy and relief. Finally, I could count myself as a believer. I was one of them. Aisha smiled broadly and handed me her daughter for kisses.
On the Fridays following my conversion, I bussed from school to the mosque for jumu‘ah, or Friday prayers. On those afternoons, the women’s prayer hall was bustling, full of teachers and students from the school as well as other members of the ummah. Many were the wives of international students who had walked over from the university’s married student housing. I kissed the friends I had made on both cheeks as we entered. Women seated themselves on the floor, as prayer halls contain no furniture. A young Iranian mother proudly put her infant son on the carpeting in front of me and encouraged him in Farsi to take a step, his latest accomplishment. He dropped to all fours and began crawling away at top infant speed. We laughed.
When Aisha appeared, we went to the washroom and got in line for wuḍūʾ. When it was our turn, we sat beside each other on the long seats in front of the water trenches, slipped off our headscarves, and removed our shoes and socks. I carried out the ritual carefully, making sure to do each step correctly, as she’d taught me. I began by addressing God in my mind and setting my intention to prepare myself for prayer. I rinsed my hands; my mouth, nostrils, face, forearms, head, and ears; and finally my feet. It had taken practice not to get my clothes wet during this cleansing.
When we were done, we made our way back to the hall and took our places in the neat, orderly rows of women and children. Aisha tugged gently on my sleeve to bring my shoulder into contact with hers and line me up properly for prayer. The imam led us through the words associated with each movement and a long, sonorous recitation from the Koran. We followed his lead, hundreds of people moving together. The women rustled around me, first bowing and then prostrating themselves with foreheads on the carpeting before rising again. Praising God was a community effort.
Afterward, we took our time saying goodbye and then made our way into the bright afternoon. Aisha and I took Rabia to the store to pick up something for dinner, two women in hijab fluttering through the aisles of Kroger. Sometimes I felt conspicuous out alone, but with her I felt bolstered. Last-sale-day lamb and eggplant went into the cart. There was rice at home.
On the way back to her townhouse, Aisha shared some news about the school. There was conflict over buying new playground equipment. “Some of the brothers don’t want us to purchase jungle gyms with overhead pieces if it means their daughters will use them,” she said.
“In some countries, it’s not considered feminine to develop upper body strength.”
I bristled. Although I didn’t have a child in the school, I’d met many of the girls when I joined Sister Lena as a coleader of a Girl Scout troop at the Islamic school, and I wanted them to have every chance for growth, learning, and fun that the boys had. I tried to consider how compromises on swing sets and teeter-totters were a small price to pay for keeping the peace in this international community, but I felt the obstacle personally. It made me keenly aware of my own position in the ummah. I was young, unmarried, female, and a convert. I had no voice.
Aisha soothed, “You have to understand that not everyone thinks the same way you do. They’re trying to raise their families with the same values they were raised with. It’s hard for them to balance all of the opportunities they have here with their own cultural norms. They want their children to be marriageable in their own countries. They’re planning to go home.”
We got back to her townhouse, where I would be staying the night, and prepared food. After dinner, Aisha and Muhammad retired to the adjacent living room, and I worked on conjugating French verbs. At ʿishāʾ, or the last devotion of the evening, Aisha and I lined up together behind Muhammad. He led us in his rich voice. I loved the cadence despite not understanding the individual words.
When the thirty days of Ramadan began, I fasted. Despite its challenges, it brought an intimacy with God that was unlike anything I’d experienced. From dawn to sunset, Muslims refrain from food, drink, and sex. I kept one eye on the clock during the long, exhausting summer days, but I also felt spiritually illuminated. I learned through experience that fasting is not about food or drink. It’s about making room for God in your everyday life. It’s about being reminded, every time you’re hungry or thirsty, that there’s another place to turn for sustenance.
Ramadan is the most social time of the Muslim year. Nearly every night brought an invitation to feast at someone’s house, what is known as iftar. Most of my invitations were made through Aisha, and she kept track of our social calendar, providing transportation home when I wasn’t staying the night. At these feasts, men and women ate in different rooms. Guests were lavishly treated to mounds of rice, lamb, and chicken, stuffed grape leaves painstakingly rolled hour after hour, vegetables and salads, hummus and pita, platters of pistachio baklava. These experiences gave me a treasured sense of belonging. I felt that I had done the right thing by converting, and I basked in the direction and support of this Muslim community.
Sister Aisha told me that it would be good for my religion if I were to get married, and I soon began getting advice from the women around me about how to handle proposals and marriage contracts. A wedding gift from the groom to the bride is required. Aisha told me that she had accepted a token dollar bill. A sister from Syria scoffed at that—she had received ten thousand dollars. Where did your husband get that kind of money? I asked. He borrowed it from a bank.
I was advised by Muslim-born women to ask for something substantial—a college education, a car, an apartment I could manage and rent out for a source of income. I listened but I had trouble applying their advice in my own life. It seemed a given that I would go to college, and at the time I made four dollars an hour washing dishes at the deli next door to my high school. My mom would give me a ride home on the days that my shift ended after the buses stopped running. That was my reference point for economic independence: having enough pocket money to ditch class and go out to lunch with my friends. I didn’t know how to choose a dowry that would provide a long-term benefit, something that I might have to rely on if my husband proved stingy with family finances.
I was also told that if I married a Saudi, I should ask in the marriage contract for the right to travel, with my children, out of the country. If I didn’t want to end up in a polygamous marriage, I should put that into the contract as well. If I wanted the right to ask for a divorce at a later date, I needed to speak up at the front end of the arrangement. It was heady stuff for a high schooler.
I learned from the women that education was highly valued by potential mates, and indeed many of the Muslim housewives around me had advanced college degrees. Many of the unmarried women were pursuing degrees. I was still a junior in high school, and my father’s doctorate didn’t count. A strong family background was also highly valued, but they meant a Muslim family, not parents who only agreed that my conversion was a teenage lark. But there was one thing I had going for me: I was native-born, and my spouse would have an easy path to citizenship.
Other Muslim couples, including Sister Lena and her husband, Ahmed, began playing matchmaker. Ahmed advised that I get better clothes to attract a husband, as I was often wearing hand-me-downs from the mosque’s charity pile. He traveled to Pakistan and returned with a gorgeous, fully embroidered, pink outfit for me. I kept it for years.
It was exciting to be the center of attention, but I didn’t have an appreciation for what a lifelong commitment to another person would mean. I stayed quiet during the machinations that would decide my fate, because I knew that quiet modesty was prized among Muslim women, and I simply wanted to take the next step toward improving my religion, and I’d heard that marriage to a native-born Muslim man was key to a fulfilling life of faith. I hadn’t given much thought to whether I wanted children, or how that might complicate plans for college. I was simply open to becoming more fully Muslim.
Aisha and Muhammad and Lena and Ahmed kept their eyes and ears open and eventually decided to introduce me to a North African student named Yusuf. About ten years older than me, Yusuf had prematurely graying hair that made him look older. Endearing and a bit shy, he behaved kindly toward me. He was looking for a wife.
It’s not proper to get to know your intended in a private or personal way before marriage. You are either married or not married, and there are strict rules about how nonmarried men and women interact. We met a few times in the presence of others. Yusuf sent me a tin of traditional Arabic treats called halvah. One night we went out to eat, chaperoned by Aisha and Muhammad, at a Mexican chain restaurant called Chi-Chi’s. We sat talking nervously until closing, and then Yusuf asked me to move a few tables away with him. He proposed, albeit without a ring, and I said yes.
I’ve been told throughout my life that I seem older than my years. As a young person, I found that flattering. I thought it meant—and I wanted it to mean—that I was grown. At sixteen, I saw myself as a pimply, independent, earnest, and idealistic young woman. Well-spoken, I could articulate my desires, some of which were beyond my years.
And I had a clear sense that Aisha, Muhammad, Lena, Ahmed, and Yusuf were genuine, that their intentions for my religious formation were good, that we shared the same goals. What I lacked was maturity and perspective about myself and about them—what did they want from me? Did they see themselves in me? Were they trying to save me? It’s hard to tell. But they had the life experience to know that they were setting me up for a difficult path. At the very least, they should have shown my family the respect of including them in these momentous decisions.
My parents were oblivious to these plans—a religious ceremony with legalities to follow in a few years. They believed my activities in the Muslim community were harmless. On a typical day, I would accompany the Daisy Girl Scout Troop to an orchard for hayrides or come home from women-only get-togethers bubbling with stories of three-foot-tall chocolate fondue fountains surrounded by dipping fruits. My parents, glad that I was gaining multicultural exposure, weren’t worried about my new friends. They recognized that this community kept me away from drugs, casual sex, and staying out late getting into mischief—if I was up late, it was for prayer.
After saying yes to Yusuf, we began spending chaperoned time together. He even met my mother, although we did not share the fact that we planned to get married. Yusuf didn’t pressure me to set a date. We also didn’t speak about having children or where we might live. We didn’t talk about my future as a college student or about Yusuf’s plans for citizenship. For me, these considerations seemed unimportant or remote, perhaps because I was not so much marrying Yusuf, the North African university student, as I was becoming a full member of the Muslim community, someone to be taken seriously.
As I began looking at wedding outfits, I also began to pay more attention to the stories of newly married American converts, to the less-than-pleasant situations of women in the mosque who had married foreigners. Aisha took me to meet a twenty-five–year–old Saudi woman who had married at fifteen and immediately had two children. “You’re too young,” she told me. “Don’t get married now. Get an education first.” I also learned of an adult American sister who made the decision to get married to improve her religion and was sent with much fanfare to Egypt. She returned, divorced, just a few months later. She had been physically abused.
Weeks passed and then months. There were very real obstacles Yusuf and I did not address: an adult male would be cohabiting with an underage female to whom he was not legally married. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s statutory rape. Yusuf told his family that he had proposed to me, but someone was going to have to back me up when I told my parents.
Eventually, the weight of it all—the secret I was keeping from my parents, the pressure, unease that I would be leaving my country of origin—collapsed upon me. One evening I waited until my mother was watching a television show, and then I snuck downstairs to the basement where my brother and I shared time with the stereo, where I’d first read heard Cat Stevens and read his letter to his fans.
“How are you this evening?” Yusuf asked. I heard him turn off his television and sit back down in his rocker. “How was class today? Did you work after school?”
I didn’t have a lot of privacy on the home phone, so it was a bit unusual for me to call him. I answered his questions without elaborating and then asked him about his day.
“I had a lecture in organic chemistry, and I spent some time in the lab. I had lunch with Ahmed, and he and Lena are well,” he said. “It’s so nice to hear from you.”
There was a long pause, and I sat silently on my end of the phone. I took a few deep breaths. “Did you call to see about my day?” he asked patiently in the semiformal tone he always used with me.
I shut my eyes tight: “Yusuf,” I blurted, “I don’t know what to do, but I know that I can’t marry you right now.”
He was quiet for a few moments. “Are you sure?” he asked. It broke my heart. I faltered, lacking the tools to make a clean break of it.
“I can’t marry you now,” I repeated, and then rushed into a new idea. “Could I change my mind later? I really like you.”
“You mean, change your mind again?” he asked, surprised. He chuckled. An unhappy chuckle. A wistful chuckle. “You are very young. I knew that when we began.” It was his turn to pause, and then he continued. “But, please, think of me. I have my pride, and I cannot wait for your maybe that could take years to resolve itself.”
There was another moment of silence. I suddenly felt bereft, wanting to take it all back, to tell him I’d gladly move to another continent with him—I just needed to finish high school first.
“I think it’s better if we say goodbye now,” he said, clearing his throat. I swallowed.
“Thank you for everything,” I said. “Goodbye then.”
“Goodbye. I hope you have a very good life and that when it’s time for you to choose a husband you find a good man. May Allah be with you.”
I did not get married. I did not lose my virginity to Yusuf or become a teenage mother. I did not get entangled with US Immigration and Naturalization Services over someone I didn’t really know. Eventually, after the engagement ended and my college plans solidified, I drifted away from Aisha and the Muslim community. I immersed myself in a four-year, all-American, intellectualized soul search with healthy doses of alcohol, sex, and left-wing politics. I majored in English and minored in women’s studies at a Big Ten school. I made new friends, discovered new interests, and left the grave concerns of religion behind me.
Islam came into my life when I was young and impressionable. I was seeking God, and I was seeking a community where I could belong during those tough high school years. Islam delivered. It delivered on the rules I felt I needed to provide structure to my otherwise secular and easygoing life. It delivered an all-encompassing worldview that answered my questions about how to live—from the most mundane concerns to some of the biggest decisions of my life, including how to find the person I should marry.
I loved the theology I encountered during my time as a Muslim, and I find that much of what I was taught then about the nature of God and the importance of religious practice I still believe. I haven’t seen Aisha in years, but I still consider her one of the most influential people in my life. She was a relatively young person herself then, younger than I am now, and despite the poor judgement she showed in involving herself in my engagement to Yusuf, she took a genuine interest in me. I’m grateful to her even if I don’t understand all of her motives, even if I believe she and her community in some ways disrespected me and my family. I’d like to think that she simply enjoyed teaching me about Islam, a religion she loved.
I’ve returned to Islam throughout my life, and next year I will celebrate the thirtieth year since taking my shahada. More than a quarter century later, I still value this religion I adopted as a teenager. I find wisdom in its teachings, beauty in its many art forms, and connection to God through its rituals that I can access today. I remember so clearly that sense of otherworldly lightness during communal prayer. God’s comfort. God’s grace. I felt like I was really getting it right, like my questions about how to live had all been answered.
As I’ve grown older those peak religious experiences have become rare. Now I rely on religious duty to generate the feeling that God approves of how I’m living my life. Did I really have it all right when I was sixteen? Is that what God was trying to tell me? I remember those emotionally satisfying experiences with longing now. I can’t go back, and from where I am I don’t know that I can go forward with Islam. For one thing, the man I eventually married is not a Muslim, and that’s forbidden for Muslim women. I also don’t believe my feminist principles and cultural differences would be welcomed by many foreign-born Muslims. I fear these differences are insurmountable. This may represent a lack of imagination or courage on my part, but I don’t want to have to fight to be included in my place of worship.
I now find myself yearning for an accepting religious community where I can be true to the secular beliefs that are important to me, a religious community that is feminist and socially liberal. And yet, I still need discipline as I struggle toward the divine. To maintain a daily reminder of God’s rules, I don’t eat pork. I pray, but just once a day. I fast to the best of my ability during Ramadan. I’ve been attending services for over a year at a church that teaches that how we treat one another is more important than what we believe about God. I like that, but I still have a deeply rooted feeling that what I believe matters—to me and to God.
There is a quote attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre that I love: “Even if I think it is God that I obey, it is I who decided that it was God who spoke to me.”3 My faith has, at its root, my own desire to seek God and to listen for God’s voice, my decision to trust in God. And that decision starts with having faith in myself and how I’ve chosen to pursue my most deeply held beliefs. My parents, in their own way, would approve.
Sonya Schryer Norris
Sonya Schryer Norris spent her formative years in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She now resides with her husband in Lansing, Michigan, where she works as a librarian. She blogs at https://snakeladylibrarian.wordpress.com/ and has spent the last twenty-four months there writing about religion.