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Why one woman converted to Islam Add to ...

"In a way, I was in the market for a philosophy."

Although she'd cultivated an academic interest in Islam at university, Willow Wilson's religious awakening really came in the hospital. She was suffering from adrenal distress, and its symptoms - including insomnia and hair loss - would last for a year and a half.

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"Being ill had shaken something loose in my head," the 27-year-old writes in her new memoir The Butterfly Mosque. "That so many people were well - that I had been well for so long - seemed miraculous."

After she recovered, Ms. Wilson accepted a teaching position in Cairo: Her decision to convert to Islam came mid-flight, over the Mediterranean. Days later, she would meet her future husband Omar, a pious Muslim and heavy-metal aficionado, at their English-language school. He showed her markets and cafés free of Westerners, and later steered her through her first Ramadan.

Ms. Wilson, a first-time author, spoke with The Globe and Mail from Seattle, where she relocated to with her husband nearly three years ago.

Your memoir is punctuated by people asking why you converted to Islam. You tell your roommate you tried to be an atheist but that "it didn't work." What do you tell people now?

It really depends on why the person is asking and on what our relationship is. I was searching for a religion that spoke to me and Islam did that in a more complete way than anything else I had studied. There was a pull for me in the words of the Koran that seemed very personal.

When you tell your roommate Jo that Islam is sex-positive, she asks you to look around Egypt, where she says women are "hunted like animals." How do you reconcile those kinds of questions with your faith?

I don't. There are things that go on in Muslim countries that are completely out of line with the teachings of Islam. If you look anywhere in the world where people are dealing with oppression or war or poverty, you see them acting in a shocking way. If you look at Uganda with the Lord's Resistance Army that's sanctioning child soldiers and child marriage and committing all sorts of atrocity quoting the Bible the whole time, we can separate that because we're familiar with Christianity. It's less easy for us to make that separation when it comes to Islam because it's so foreign to us.

You told your family and friends via e-mail that you'd converted, and their responses were slow in coming. You write that your parents were "supportive in a weary and slightly self-recriminating way," as if your decision "resulted from a defect in their parenting."

It was subtle. They were worried. If a member of the family moves far away and adopts a different religion, naturally your response would be, "What's wrong with where you come from and what you've always believed?"

Did they think you were brainwashed?

If they did, they never told me. It was clear from the beginning that I wasn't in lockstep with this new ideology or that I'd abandoned everything from my old life.

Your engagement came on the day you confessed to Omar that you loved him and he first held your hand.

Yeah. We were never going to be just boyfriend/girlfriend. That does not really exist in Egypt, not among mainstream Egyptians.

So there was no ring, just this discussion.

We were creating a hybrid culture as we went. If I had been an Egyptian girl from a mainstream Egyptian family we would have done the very traditional thing and he would have come to my father and said, "Here's what I'm willing to offer your daughter," in terms of a home or a ring. Since we were dealing with two cultures, we just had a serious conversation about what this would mean and where would we go from here.

You said you and your husband turned to the Koran whenever you had a disagreement about "gender or freedom of movement." Did you have many of those?

Some, yeah. Egypt is a very different place than the U.S. on every level - psychologically, emotionally and socially. People go about their daily lives in different ways. It's unusual for women of a certain class to do their own shopping: They'll send maids or have delivery people. I'm used to growing up with everybody doing everything for themselves. [For Egyptians] it was strange to see someone who wanted to do as much running around and busy work as I did. Ironically, religion was the most neutral interface [my husband and I]could use to resolve those things, because it predates everything that we both know by 1,400 years. It didn't take sides, oddly enough.

You decide to start wearing the hijab. How did your American circle receive that?

Pretty well. I like to co-ordinate it with my outfits and I have a lot of different coloured scarves. It's not like I put on a sheet and started walking around silently like a black omen of death. I think that was probably a relief: It wasn't something that was crushing my personality.

When you start wearing it, your husband asks you why. You tell him you wanted to give him something bigger than anything you'd given anyone before. Is that the right reason?

I don't know that there is such a thing as the right reason. That's the funny thing about religion. We can all take these symbols that are the same for everybody and yet can they mean something radically different to each person who takes them up.

Why did you leave Cairo?

I wanted to spend at least part of my adult life in my own country. I felt like I was losing touch with my friends who were the same age. We should have been at the same phase of life but they were just in completely in different places. They'd talk about sublets and going on Craigslist to find a roommate and car insurance and I'm sitting there thinking, "I don't know about any of these things. Today I went down to the market and I bought a live chicken for lunch!" All of the adult skills that I had were Egyptian skills. I didn't want to lose track of my American life completely.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

 

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