Musings about academe in haphazard fashion.
Just finished reading one of the books on the list of readings on the Augusta Library grant for diversity. After reading it, I’m almost angry. How could I not have heard of Willow Wilson before? How had I missed this book? It’s been out for some time and now that I’ve done a light skim of the internet, I see that she’s already published another book to great acclaim Alif the Unseen. As you can tell, The Butterfly Mosque was well worth the read.
I must admit, I was leery about reading another book by a Muslim convert. I had had a tough time getting through the first of Umm Zakiyyah’s book, because of its predictability. I have yet to get through the first chapters of A Voice and Footsteps, which are next in her series. There seems to be the tendency for some Islamic Fiction to be the equivalent of Reader’s Digest “feel good” stories where all is right in the end for those with the strength, morality, and good judgment. Having said that, other English language fiction centered in countries other than the U.S. and by non-U.S. born authors tends to be horrific, graphic, and so completely depressing you need recovery time afterward to pick up the pieces of humanity and make the world sane again. That’s how I felt after reading The Kite Runner, and, more recently, The Good Muslim. G. Willow Wilson’s memoir is nothing like these. If I could compare it to anything, it would have to be the Anglo-Pakistani book, Love in a Headscarf. Both are frank, funny, insightful, and straddle cultures deftly pointing out the beauty and ridiculous of each, but with respect.
The Butterfly Mosque is written in clear, captivating language, and with the right amount of Arabic terminology and explanation that would not lose the non-Muslim reader. As a convert, I could well appreciate the issues raised by Ms. Wilson about telling family, about figuring out dress/style, and about finding oneself as an adult and navigating and negotiating multiple social and cultural boundaries. I must admit to laughing out loud when reading page 199,
“So what was the most unusual thing you saw in Iran? Tell me about something you weren’t expecting.”
Jo laughed. “Seriously.”
“I am serious. Who makes jam from a vegetable? It explains everything. The revolution, the hostage crisis–everything.”
The mixture of cultural contact, political history, and humor works very well throughout her text. Likewise, there are moments of poignant brilliance that would make anyone pause and reconsider what we think and know about Western society versus the rest of the work. On page 250, she writes,
“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 e-mail from an editor saying, “Thanks, got it.” When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands.”
After following Ms. Wilson’s life from a typical college lifestyle, to illness and contemplation of faith, to adventure in teaching abroad, marriage, and more, the reader becomes engrossed in seeing Egypt and Iran, faith and life, through her eyes. As the book concludes, the reader is left wanting to know more. What happens when she and her Egyptian Sufi husband do go to the United States? Do they stay the full 2 years to put him on the path to U.S. citizenship? Does he adapt well? Do they return to Egypt? If you come away from a book with this many questions and more and cannot put it down ’til the wee hours of the morning, it’s worth the read.
My only real criticism other than the fact that the editors did not catch a number of hyphenated words that must have originally been at line-end, has to do with the introduction of the college girl to the faith conversion to Islam. This beginning of the text was perhaps the least believable to me. I am perhaps overly critical of the “I was destined to find Islam” sort of writing. Possibly Ms. Wilson truly did have an epiphany of sorts and came to Islam in the way described. Or, perhaps she has merely created a history that looks backward and best explains the process; and maybe she has truly come to believe in her spiritual inevitability. I do not know her and could not begin to judge her inner-psyche, but that section of her work is the least credible. But, it does not detract from the entirety of the text. I’m pleased to find that this was one of the texts included in the NEH grant “Muslim Journeys” for public libraries as a bridge between cultures. To learn more, please click http://www.programminglibrarian.org/muslimjourneys/mj-about.html