Reprint: Allah is the Light / Prayer in Ramadan & Elul
This week's portion: thinking about sacrifice

G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque

A while back I reviewed a graphic novel caled Cairo by G. Willow Wilson (along with Barry Deutsch's Hereville.) I'm here today to sing the praises of Wilson's latest work of nonfiction / memoir: The Butterfly Mosque. (That link goes to the paperback edition, which isn't yet out; when my friend Cate, who'd read the book in hardcover, recommended it to me I picked it up for Kindle. And oh, wow, am I glad I did.)


Wilson is an American Muslim who now divides her time between the US and Cairo (read her standard bio here.) In college she became mysteriously ill (I know what that's like -- though my illness came in my early 30s, not my 20s) and the illness slowed her down. It gave her an opportunity to ask big questions about her life. And she became conscious of the fact that although she had been reared in a nominally Protestant but basically secular home, she couldn't help believing in God. The trinitarianism of Christianity didn't appeal to her; she found much to like about Judaism, but perceived it as a religion into which one really needs to be born, rather than to convert. (I disagree with that understanding, but that's another post for another time.) But Islam called to her, and after college she went to Egypt, having secretly chosen Islam in her heart.

The Butterfly Mosque is in one sense a religious memoir, the story of a woman seeking and finding her faith. In another sense it's a classic travel narrative and the story of becoming someone who can bridge between two worlds. Wilson opens a window into her experience: how she and her room-mate had no idea how to shop for food in Cairo until a friend of a friend led them by the hand through the souq, how she began to spend more and more time with that friend, how she came to realize that in a strange way they were courting, how they finally expressed their intentions to one another. The scene where she tells Omar that she wants to be with him -- and then admits aloud for the first time in her life that she is a Muslim, and he can't help breathing "thank God!" -- is poignant and funny and sweet. (For more tastes of the book, here's a link to the excerpt which was published in the Times: Engagement in Cairo.)

But part of what I love about this book is that most of the book takes place after that. Choosing Islam, moving to Egypt, navigating the unfamiliar waters of a bustling developing-world city completely unlike what she had known before, falling in love -- all of those are prologue to the bigger story here, which is a story about fully coming to inhabit her Islam in the Middle East in a post-9/11 world.

The shadow of 9/11 is all over this book. Wilson's friends from the States, once they connect with her in Cairo, are harassed and detained by the US government. Wilson is horrified, though her new family in Cairo is entirely unsurprised -- after all, they've been living under Mubarak; government harassment is a normal state of affairs. When Wilson's family and friends come to Cairo for her wedding, the Egyptian government is suspicious and doesn't want to let all of them travel together to the ceremony. Americans, by and large, don't understand the Middle East or Islam; and Middle Eastern Muslims don't generally understand what's taken-for-granted in mainstream American life. A life caught between these two realities, with so much potential for misunderstanding, can't be easy.

But Wilson makes clear that athough there's much potential for alienation, her life as a living bridge between two worlds is also full of blessing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, what I love most about this book is the glimpses it affords of one woman's devout Muslim life. When I read the passage where Wilson has just survived her first day of her first Ramadan fast, I had to pause and hold my heart; the experience of eating that first meal after a fast is one I know well from my own religious life, and the festive familial scene Wilson describes is so sweet that it moved me deeply. And because Wilson is interested in history and theology, she's inclined to explore some of the questions and issues which fascinate me too. Late in the book, Wilson has the opportunity to discuss Islam with Sheikh Ali Gomaa, who is aware that she's translating his words for a Western audience for whom Muslim legalism may seem bizarre. How, she asks him, would he explain to that Western audience what a fatwa is? He replies,

A fatwa is a statement clarifying the position of Shari'a law regarding a particular human act, whether that act has to do with ritual -- something between a person and God -- or social, political, or economic dealings between human beings.

I could say the exact same thing about a teshuvah, a halakhic (Jewish legal) responsum! (And we draw the same distinction between acts which happen bein adam l'makom, between a person and God, and bein adim l'chavero, between one person and another.) That, too, is a subject which merits its own post -- and before I write it, I'll want to learn a lot more about some of the ways in which shari'a functions in different communities -- but reading Wilson's book, I was struck again by the many commonalities between our two traditions. I've long been interested in this common ground (see Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul); reading Wilson's memoir only strengthens my sense that this is something I'd like to explore more deeply. (And for those who are interested, here's the essay she wrote out of that interview with the Sheikh: The Show-Me Sheikh, published in The Atlantic.)

It's the little details and stories which make this book really work for me. The story about learning to shop in the souq, and the merchant who sells Wilson a turkey to see if she can tell the difference. The conversation she has with her husband when she makes the decision to take on the practice of hijab ("I'm going to start wearing a scarf," she says abruptly; a bit later, she tells the reader "it was a way to say that anyone who could not see Omar as he was would not see me as I was." He has revealed his hidden self to her; hijab becomes her way of promising that she will reveal her deepest self only to him.) Her conversation with a sheikha (female sheikh), and the story about the women in her new family teaching her how to dance. While there's much about the life of a Muslim woman in Cairo which might look restrictive to the contemporary American reader, Wilson makes it clear that that life is also full of sweetness:

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.

The book ends on the cusp of Wilson and her husband's decision to spend some time in the States. It's the right place for it to end; we get to see one piece of her farewell to the religious life she's known in Cairo, and with their move to the US comes the end of that particular chapter of their lives and their marriage. But some part of me can't help wishing there were going to be a sequel, about how she and Omar have handled their shared religious life in her homeland instead of his, in a place where Islam is so often regarded with suspicion and misunderstanding. By the end of this book, I feel as though I know them; I wish I could invite them over for dinner, or for long cups of hot mint tea, to talk about life and culture, globalism and parochialism, Judaism and Islam, their lives and mine. For me, that's one of the marks of a successful memoir. I recommend The Butterfly Mosque highly.