On Monday, the eleventh of February, 2002, I apprehensively stepped through the doors of the local mosque to recite the profession of faith that would make me a Muslim. I was a ver y shy, naïve, young American woman with absolutely no direct personal experience of Islam, and I had no idea about what to expect. Even though this was a mosque located in the heart of a good-sized American city, it still seemed a foreign, mysterious place to me. Would the people there be kind and accepting or mysterious and forbidding? I took a seat in the foyer to await the arrival of the imam of the mosque and looked around, my head awkwardly covered with a thin black scarf I’d bought a few days before. There were only a handful of men in the building, waiting for the noon prayer.
Where was the imam, anyway? We had spoken on the telephone the day before, when I’d summoned the courage to finally call the mosque to say that I wanted to convert to Islam. When? Today, if possible! Well, it was Sunday, and that would make things difficult. I finally agreed to come to the mosque the next day, Monday, and the imam told me that he would meet me then so I could make my shahadah, the testimony of faith. I’d been practicing the Arabic words for a couple of days and was fairly confident that I could recite them when asked. Now all I needed were the two or more Muslim witnesses whose presence would make it official.
The next morning, I took the bus to the mosque, a small, domed building located right next to the university. I’d passed by it a few times before but had never had the courage to step inside. That was why I’d telephoned first, because I wanted to get some more information before daring to enter such an unfamiliar place. It was much less forbidding once I’d made my appointment, but I still opened those doors with my heart in my throat, nervous and terrified that I’d breach some rule or custom.
That wasn’t long in coming. After waiting around nervously for a little while, I took off my shoes, left them in the space provided, and entered the prayer room, just to have a look around. There was an expanse of blue carpet covering the floor, with permanent depressions to mark out lines for prayer. The walls were whitewashed and unadorned, and in front there was a closed, roll-away room divider—the room could be expanded into the main prayer area for Friday prayer, but at the time I didn’t know what was behind it. There was a small door in the back left corner, with a smaller prayer room visible. I picked a line in the main room and began to go through the motions of the Muslim prayer ritual, which I had been practicing for some weeks, using index cards to help me memorize the Arabic words. After I finished, I noticed a man behind me who told me a bit apologetically that this was actually the men’s prayer room! The smaller one was for women. I apologized and left the room, deeply ashamed.
The imam finally arrived, and I gratefully stood to greet him. We went into his office and spoke for a little while about how I’d found Islam and what I would have to do to make my shahadah. A Jordanian Arab, he had only been in America for a couple of years; he spoke English with a very heavy accent. He was friendly and very interested in me, which put me at ease.
When we finished speaking, he took me to the main prayer room. There was an Islamic elementary school on the premises, and at this point a class of children, perhaps seven or eight years of age, were sitting in there with their teacher, a young woman in an abaya (black overgarment) I’ll call Noor. The imam had me go up to the microphone and repeat what he said to me.
“Ash-hadu anna la illaha illallah, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammad ur-rasul Allah. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his messenger.”
“Takbir!” the imam commanded, smiling, and all the children yelled “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great”) as one. “Takbir!” he said again, and the children repeated their cry. The imam said “Takbir!” a third time, the children once again cried out that God is great, and then Noor hugged me. Afterward, the imam and I returned to his office, and I asked for a certificate of conversion, since I had fantasies of making the hajj, and the Saudi government won’t let you get anywhere near Mecca without proof that you’re a Muslim. The time for the noon prayer arrived shortly thereafter, and I felt my heart leap with joy and excitement when I finally heard the adhan, the call to prayer, being recited for the first time over the mosque loudspeaker system. I prayed with Noor in the women’s section, and she offered to help me out as I was such a new Muslim. For most of the rest of the afternoon, I stayed at the mosque, speaking with Noor and the imam and asking questions. I had to leave around 2 P.M. for a class at the university, but after that I returned and spent some more time talking with them. Noor, I soon learned, was a convert like me, and she wore a niqab, a face veil, in public, which I was later to learn was very unusual in this community; all the other women I met at the mosque just wore the hijab, merely covering the hair. She seemed a very interesting and intriguing person, and I looked forward to getting to know her better.
How had I gotten myself into this situation? It’s a long story. Five months earlier to the day, I’d watched on television, horrified, as the second of the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The night before, I hadn’t been able to sleep until 5 A.M., and I was awakened a few hours later by my father telling me that the World Trade Center was on fire and that one of the towers had already collapsed. For the rest of the day, I sat in something of a daze, glued to the television, unable to make any sense of what was going on.
There was a personal side to the tragedy. Two years previously, I’d dragged my mother and younger sister with me to visit New York City, the first time for any of us, because I so desperately wanted to go there. While we were there, we’d visited the Twin Towers, and I still had my $12.50 adult admission ticket stub. Thinking of that, I dug out all my New York souvenirs, finally found the stub, and looked at it despondently.
It really hit me hard. After all, I’d actually been in those buildings; the World Trade Center wasn’t just some meaningless name to me. I remembered the huge entrance lobby, the superfast visitor’s elevator, and the visitor’s center on the top floor of the second tower, surrounded by huge windows where people could look out at the skyline. There was a restaurant, several gift shops, a small theater that took you on a “ride” over the city, even making the seats move along with the action on the screen. Tucked in a corner was a scale model of the city. All gone. I remembered the bank of telephones where I’d called a friend I’d met in the city while we were there. I also remembered how angry my mother had been because the observation deck on the roof was closed due to ice. It was March and still winter, and New York had just had a snowfall! Gone, all gone—maybe along with some of the people I’d happened to see there, too.
The terrible events of September 11, 2001, had a rather strange effect on me. Instead of provoking intense rage or bitter hatred, they served to spark an intense curiosity in me about Islam. What was it about Islam and the Muslim world that had led people to do these things? I had been interested in the Middle East ever since I was a child and had learned about the great ancient civilizations of the region. I had also taken a couple of classes on the subject when I was a student at the university. In fact, I’d even purchased an English translation of the Qur’an, the one by M.H. Shakir, which I’d ch
osen because it was the only translation at the bookstore in which each individual verse was numbered instead of only every fifth verse. I had even read it all the way through, having decided that I could not call myself educated if I didn’t know what was in the holy text of Islam. I’d already read the Bible through at least three times, so that wasn’t an especially unusual whim for me. Still, as it had been a few years, I simply couldn’t recall much of what I’d read. I dug out the small paperback volume and proceeded to reread it. However, I wasn’t sure what to make of much of the text, since there were no notes and the Qur’an is written in a rather elliptical style that alludes to events more than it spells them out.
No, I needed a new translation, one that I recalled reading a bit at the university library some time ago. It had been a really nice, green, hardcover volume with the Arabic text and English translation in parallel columns, and best of all, it had notes. I wanted one for myself. I searched the bookstores, but frustratingly I couldn’t find anything like it. My next stop was Amazon.com (I wasn’t used to purchasing books online at the time), and there it was—Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. I quickly bought a copy and added to my order a few other introductory books about Islam. When they finally arrived I devoured them all.
There was something about the Qur’an and Islam that fascinated me, something I still can’t fully explain. I just couldn’t get enough of the subject. I began to visit Islamic Web sites in an effort to find out more about the religion and even worked up the courage to send in a question to an Islamic Q&A fatwa site. (A fatwa is simply an opinion about some aspect of Islamic law issued by a Muslim scholar and does not actually mean a death sentence, contrary to Western perceptions after the Salman Rushdie affair.) I got a quick reply from a young Egyptian man—a hafiz, meaning that he had memorized the entire Qur’an—and we began exchanging e-mails on a regular basis. I asked him about various aspects of the religion, and he answered my questions very patiently. I wasn’t always convinced by what he was saying, but at least I was communicating with a bona fide Muslim! I didn’t know any Muslims personally at the time—admittedly, my social circle was extremely limited—and so I was really pleased to be in contact with such a knowledgeable representative of Islam.
I was also obsessed with learning more about not just the religion of Islam but also anything associated with the Islamic world. I plowed through quite a few volumes concerning the finer points of Islam, the history of the Islamic world, Islamic art and architecture, even tangential matters such as the pre-Islamic history of the region. All cultures and people that had some connection with Islam were fair game—Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Africans, Indians, Pakistanis—anybody at all.
I lost count of the number of hours I spent staring at photographs of the exquisite art and architecture of the Islamic world, and I ended up being simply smitten. Something about the culture and the art, as well as the religion, touched me very deeply, and the more I studied and the more books I read, the more I wanted to not just study it but become a part of it, somehow. When I contemplated the blue tiling and graceful calligraphy of the Masjid-i Shah (Royal Mosque), now known as the Masjid-i Imam (Mosque of the Imam), in Isfahan, Iran, for example, I couldn’t shake the feeling that to truly be able to fully appreciate it, I would need to accept the religion that inspired it. Of course, it’s perfectly possible for somebody to appreciate a work of religious art without subscribing to the underlying belief system, but it seemed to me that the full effect could really only be experienced by a believer. A nonbeliever can admire a cathedral or stained-glass representations of biblical stories or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, but in such cases the appreciation may be somewhat distant or detached. You’re admiring the art and maybe have a vague sense of the artistic spirit that sparked it, but as for the specifically religious content of the work, well…it may not really move you since you don’t believe in it. If you are a believer, though, your appreciation has considerably more depth—Bach isn’t just setting some silly old fable to music; he’s retelling the story of the pivotal event in human history. Similarly, a non-Muslim may well be able to appreciate the beautiful decoration and calligraphy of the Taj Mahal, but to a Muslim, the eighty-three verses of surah Ya Seen from the Qur’an (a chapter commonly recited for the dead), twisting their way around the four portals in elegant calligraphy, can be especially moving in context, since the structure was built as a tomb for the wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
After I converted, or “reverted” in Islamic parlance (as all children are said by Islam to be born Muslim and converts are just “reverting” to their original religion), I continued to devour books and any other source of information about what was now “my” ummah, the “nation” of all Muslims, my “brothers” and “sisters” in Islam. No book was too detailed or specialized for me. I read anthropological and sociological studies of Moroccan madrasas, memoirs of secular Iranian women struggling to break free from that country’s theocracy, treatises on the finer architectural details of mosques and minarets, and so on. I even delved into dissenting views, such as Ibn Warraq’s books, since I wanted to get as many perspectives as possible. I’m sure many of those who read Not Without My Daughter or saw the film were horrified at how the author and her daughter were trapped in Iran by her tyrannical husband. By contrast, I was very intrigued and even moved by the author’s depiction of everyday life in Tehran, even though the book and film have been widely excoriated as presenting a grossly unfair depiction of Iranian society and reinforcing damaging stereotypes of Muslims. To me, all voices had to be considered, since they all possessed some truth.
Such were my intellectual obsessions. But, you may ask, what was my emotional state? I’ve said much about the intellectual roots of my embrace of Islam; how was I feeling? What made me open to the notion of completely changing my life by embracing a whole new religion?
I was really adrift at that point in my life. I had completed my university degree in creative writing but had not found a job, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I’d signed up for some courses at the local community college in hopes of getting a certificate or degree in a subject more immediately salable in the job market than creative writing, probably something having to do with computers. I’m not sure why I never considered going on to graduate school; I think I’d more or less had enough of formal education, which I had found stultifying and dull. I was actually quite ashamed of myself for being what I thought was a failure, since I had very little income, and at the time I was living in my parents’ house as I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. I had money for books, but that was only because I had money left over from my student loan.
I was also extremely lonely—as usual. All my life, I’ve been very quiet and shy; making friends has always been an exceptionally difficult challenge for me. Speaking with other people was a real struggle, too, and I developed a fear and mistrust of other people that proved devastating for my social life and my self-confidence. In addition, I felt that I had very little in common with my peers, who were generally engaged in typical adolescent activities like gossiping or shopping for clothes while I preferred to spend my free time prowling the stacks at the library or studying the encyclopedia. School had been no help for me in that regard. I had decided from an early age that school had nothing to do with education or learning; I associated it with having to repeat and relearn things I already knew. My family, while kind and loving, didn’t share my overriding passion for acquiring knowledge (or should I say facts?), so I couldn’t really talk to them about a lot of the things most important to me. When I began learning about Islam, I didn’t feel I could share any of my newfound passion with them. They knew I was buying books about the subject, but they thought that was just another one of my periodic intellectual obsessions—and I didn’t say or do anything to make them think differently.
It’s a bit strange that I have gotten this far in my story, ostensibly about my embrace of a particular religion, without mentioning what I actually believed. I don’t think I honestly believed in any kind of supernatural beings or religions at the time my obsession began. I certainly hadn’t been looking for any groups or experiences of a specifically spiritual or religious nature.
The first thoughts I clearly remember having about religion and God, when I was a small child of perhaps six or seven, were that the entire concept of God was stupid and that religion was obvious garbage. I don’t know how I had arrived at that conclusion; it surely hadn’t come from my parents! I loved reading about science as a child, especially astronomy, and that probably had something to do with it. I was a fairly hard-core atheist, at least as much as a child can be, but I remember being troubled when I contemplated the idea of my own death. My child’s brain wondered if I would see blackness, like when I closed my eyes, or whether death would be like sleeping. Finally, I decided that I would be as I had been before I was born, and I realized that I would see nothing at all. Not that these ruminations made me happy, mind you. As I got a little older, I would sometimes have panic attacks when I thought about death and the idea that there would be simply nothing afterward. Those were never pleasant experiences! I remember being upset that nobody in my family seemed to have any understanding of my fears, though perhaps that was just childish egoism.
For reasons that remain murky to me, when I was eleven, my parents decided that now was the time to finally try to give my younger siblings and me some kind of religious education. Up until then, there had been essentially nothing along those lines, even though we had all been baptized Roman Catholic. My experience with religion had been confined to a few Christmas and Easter services, to which I paid little attention. But now they started taking us to a nearby Catholic church every week. (I admit that I hesitated a bit about naming the denomination here, because I’m actually ashamed that I ever had any association with that foul, disgusting organization. Then again, I suppose it can’t be any worse than voluntarily converting to Islam!)
It was actually rather odd because my mother disliked much about the Church. She’d been sent to a Catholic school as a child and had had some extremely negative experiences there, with the nuns verbally abusing her and treating her like garbage. She loathed the sexism inherent in the patriarchal structure and the rules of the Church. I suppose that she and my father wanted to give us children some religious exposure, and it was the only church they knew. (Later on, she would shuck off Catholicism and start attending more liberal churches of other denominations, at least for a short while.)
My reaction to all of this was not what might have been expected. Up until then, as I’ve mentioned, I’d thought religion was a lot of rubbish and that the very idea of God was ridiculous. But now, for some reason, I became deeply interested in religion. As I’ve already said, I’m not sure how much of it I actually believed, but I wanted to know all about it. I remember feeling uneasy when I looked through my junior edition encyclopedia, not having the slightest idea who these people Moses and Joshua and David and so on were. We didn’t even have a Bible in the house, and I knew absolutely nothing about what it contained. So in a way this opened a whole new intellectual horizon for me.
I remember being put into weekly CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine—religious education) classes at the church and quickly becoming bored, because they didn’t impart enough factual information about the Bible or the Church for my taste! I asked for and received a really nice Bible as a gift for my first, belated Communion when I was twelve, which I read cover to cover. (Supposedly this is a really unusual thing for Catholics to do, given their stereotypically weak knowledge of the Bible.) I became somewhat annoyed with the Church’s relative lack of emphasis on the Bible in favor of various Catholic teachings. A teacher told me in a CCD class that the Church was based on “the Bible and tradition,” though it seemed to me that the latter far overshadowed the former.
No doubt one of the reasons that I found the Bible so appealing was because it was, after all, a work of ancient history, and I loved ancient history. I’m not sure how much I actually believed what I was reading; it was more that I was drawn in by the sheer historical sweep of the narrative. The Old Testament seemed far more interesting to me than the New because it dealt with a much longer span of time and seemed more ancient. I also liked reading about the history of the Church and the saints, since I loved reading history and biographies so much. I recall developing a disparaging view of certain Protestant “born-again” churches because they had no apparent sense of history. Some people seemed to think that Christianity today, the way they practiced it in their churches, was exactly the way it had been in the time of the apostles, and they took the Bible absolutely literally. They were the kind of Christians who proverbially say, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”
Still, the entire time that I was supposedly a model Catholic girl, I was tormented by doubts about the whole enterprise. It wasn’t points like whether Jesus was really born of a virgin that bothered me, as those seemed secondary and rather unimportant, but the more fundamental question of the very existence of God. I just couldn’t fully accept the idea. I attributed this to my long years of disbelief. I envied the way my mother, for example, seemed to naturally accept the existence of God even if she rejected most of the rest of what the Church taught. Perhaps, I remember thinking, a bit bitterly, I would have had that faith, too, had I been brought up from earliest childhood to believe in God.
But now I’m not so sure; after my experiences, I’m more inclined to believe that some people are instinctively less inclined to such belief than others, and so religion won’t really “take” with them. Witness what happened a few years later.
My interest in religion waned some time in high school, after I’d been confirmed, and my family gradually stopped going to church. I should note that I never felt at any time that religion was being shoved down my throat. Sure, I was being taken to church, but on some level, I always thought of religion as something I could take or leave. I can’t say I ever feared hell or even really believed in it, and I can honestly state that the infamous Catholic guilt was never a part of my experience. Although I did think that it was important to try to follow the dictates of the Church, for example, not eating meat on Fridays during Lent, I didn’t feel that any such practice was forcibly imposed on me. In fact, I tended to be the one who scrupulously tried to follow the rules, while my parents and siblings more or less ignored them. I never bothered them about that, though, because I never thought it was my place to tell others how to live. No, I would follow the rules because I (sort of) believed in them,
not because anybody was forcing me, and if I ceased to believe, I would stop.
And that’s basically what I did. I stopped midway through high school and more or less reverted to my “natural state” of atheism. Well, not quite! Although I didn’t really believe in anything supernatural anymore, I had this new sense that I really didn’t know for sure and so shouldn’t be as quick as I had been to dismiss the whole notion, a weak sort of agnosticism. I certainly wasn’t as militant as I had been. I understood more about religion now and was far more patient with it. In fact, I would get irritated when I read articles or books by people who seemed to have no understanding whatever of religion and what it meant to its followers and made no effort to see where religious people were coming from, preferring to deal in crude stereotypes of what they thought religious people believed instead of treating them as actual people with complex internal lives. Religion was an important subject that needed to be understood, not just blithely dismissed, I thought. Still, I was very sympathetic to skepticism. While a university student, I remember spending long hours in the university library going through back copies of Skeptical Inquirer and similar periodicals and reading books like Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.
This state of affairs, in which I didn’t think much about the existence of God or the truth of religion, continued until I became interested in Islam. There was a brief period when I was interested in the historical and cultural roots of Judaism, and I went on quite a reading spree about that, but I didn’t feel that I could actually believe in it as a religion. Sure, when I read about the long and fascinating history of Judaism, I occasionally wished I could be part of that tradition; but there was no way I could accept all those rules in halakha (Jewish law)! This interest paved the way for my interest in Islam, however, in that many of the concepts and ideas found in (Orthodox and historical) Judaism, such as the emphasis on sacred law and the importance of orthopraxy (correct behavior), are also found in Islam. Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how strikingly similar the two religions are, which makes it all the more perplexing why there would be so much hatred between them. Or maybe it’s not such a mystery. The fiercest battles seem to be between those who agree on the basics but differ regarding certain particulars—witness the bitter fights between slightly differing branches of Christianity, or between Sunnis and Shi’ites!
So now we come back to Islam. I want to go into more detail about what I found appealing about it, since that seems to be a major stumbling block whenever anybody hears my story—“Why on Earth Islam, of all things?!” I’ve been trying to show just how much of my initial burst of interest in Islam was not really based on the truth claims or beliefs of the religion but on everything else associated with it—its history, the different Muslim cultures and civilizations, and so on. If I’d been in a different state of mind or had had different inclinations about how best to appreciate Islam, I might have been happy to simply be another non-Muslim student of the Islamic world or the Middle East. Near East or Middle East studies departments in Western universities are filled with such people. There is something about the subject area that attracts certain people to it; there is a rich history of Westerners smitten, for lack of a better word, by the Islamic world. Examples include T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia); Gertrude Bell, who with Lawrence created the modern state of Iraq; Sir Richard Burton, who wrote about making the hajj in disguise; St. John Philby, an aristocratic convert; Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British-born woman to make the hajj; and many others. Not all converted to Islam, of course, but they were certainly drawn in by the “mystique” of the region and religion, much as I was drawn into it.
But detached scholarly study wasn’t good enough for me. No, as I mentioned before, I wanted to actually be part of Islam, not just be a student looking in. There was also something in the Qur’an that appealed to me and made me consider that perhaps what it said really was true. Of course, now that sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I was very taken by it. Each time I read the Qur’an, I would try to suspend disbelief and accept it on its own terms, just to better experience what it might be like to be Muslim. And the more I engaged in such nonjudgmental reading, the more the beliefs of Islam began to seep into my brain and become more “reasonable.” I suppose you could say I was indoctrinating myself through repetition.
By the time I finally converted, I’d gone through the Qur’an three times, and each time I accepted more and more of what it said. Nevertheless, there were some beliefs and rules that I didn’t particularly care for and couldn’t really make myself actively believe in. My response was twofold: first, I decided that if I couldn’t really accept something like the actual, physical presence of two angels on my right and left sides, taking down my deeds (as the Qur’an teaches), I could at least passively accept the notion by not actively rejecting it. God, or Allah (and here I stifled my doubts about the existence of such a being) would know my intentions, right? He’d know that my heart was in the right place.
Second, during my initial study, I’d constructed a sort of liberal Islam for myself, one that didn’t take the graphic depictions of the tortures of hellfire in the Qur’an literally. Ar-Rahman, the Most Merciful, wouldn’t really torture people forever; didn’t the Qur’an say that people would stay in hell “as long as Allah wills”? There was nothing preventing Allah from willing everybody to eventually end up in paradise, right? Those infamous verses about women were meant to be read in the context of their time, I thought. I’d discovered some Islamic feminist writers who used the Qur’an to argue for women’s rights and the equality of the sexes, and I thought it wasn’t impossible to reconcile at least some form of feminism with Islam.
Let’s go back to the beginning, because there is a far darker aspect to this story. The day I became a Muslim, I spoke for quite a while to the imam who had converted me, discussing Islam, my life situation, and other subjects. He was a tall and rather heavy man, originally from Jordan, and he seemed quite genuinely interested in me. Along with writing me a certificate of conversion that first day, he also gave me a check for a hundred and fifty dollars (as I recall), since I’d mentioned how broke I was. I stayed until after the evening prayer, when he offered to take me home in his car. I accepted gratefully; it seemed a lot better than taking the bus and walking home in the dark. We spoke some more about my life and the possible problems I might have with my family over my conversion, and he dropped me off about a block from where I lived so that they wouldn’t see him.
The next day, I returned to the mosque, and he and I were able to talk a little more. He seemed to really like me, I thought; he was always happy to listen to my problems and give advice. Noor, the young niqab-wearing woman, was also friendly and helpful to me. We discussed all sorts of things, and she even took me shopping for some new, more modest clothes, since my wardrobe consisted mostly of shorts and short-sleeved shirts, which just wouldn’t do for a Muslim woman. The imam took me home again that night, picking me up at a bus stop some distance away from the mosque so that nobody would see us together, I supposed. I remember he told me at some point during the drive home, “You need someone to take care of you.” I didn’t disagree.
This continued for the rest of that week—I would spend much of the day at the mosque, occasionally punctuated by my classes at the community college, and speak with the imam and Noor about what was going on, about Islam, and so on. He drove me home a couple more times, and one time I distinctly remember him kissing my hand as I left. I also remember sometime that week, while I was at the mosque, I became overwhelmed with feelings of depression and began to cry, and the imam took me into his office and talked to me for a little while. Then he suggested we go for a drive. I agreed.
We went to an empty house that the mosque owned, which was located on a large lot at some distance from the main road. The mosque was planning to use the land for a school at some point in the future, and that’s why the imam had the keys to the place. We got out of the car and walked around the yard for a while, speaking together a little bit, before getting back in the car and heading back to the mosque. On some semiconscious level, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to be going to a deserted location with a man I didn’t know very well, one so much older than I was, but I was hopelessly naïve. I may have been twenty-four years old, yet emotionally I felt eighteen, perhaps younger. This man was a respected imam, after all—what could I fear from him? He had a wife and three children, all of whom I’d met or at least seen, and they seemed to be a very nice, happy family.
We visited the house again the next day—I’m not sure why—and this time things were different. I remember sitting on the carpet in the empty living room with him and listening to him as he told me about the problems he was having. Since he was so eager to help me, I told him a little bit more about my own problems; we stood up to go, and he began to hug me. As he held me tightly, I could feel the unmistakable hardness of his erection against my thigh. He kissed me and asked me how I played with myself. I couldn’t answer; I was simultaneously frightened to death and, strangely, a bit excited. He asked me if I wanted to see “it,” and when I didn’t say no, he took me into one of the bedrooms off the main hall, sat down, unzipped his fly, and began masturbating furiously. I don’t know why I didn’t run. Instead, I sat there watching, fascinated and disgusted at the same time, and when he finished we left.
I have no idea what the hell was going through my mind the next day, because I not only returned to the mosque, I also went back to the house with the imam and let him touch my body any way he wanted. I think I wanted to know what “it” was like. I’d never been with a man before and was insatiably curious about everything to do with sex. I was also very lonely, and the fact that this man was actually taking an interest in me seemed too good to be true. I do remember feeling awful about the fact that he was married and that all of this was completely forbidden under Islam, but I just couldn’t seem to stop myself. I wasn’t thinking rationally; I was probably just so desperate for somebody to care about me and talk to me that I threw all my inhibitions and morals out the window, even though this meant transgressing everything my newfound faith taught.
We fell into the habit of going out to the house almost every day during the afternoon, and these visits became more and more intense. We would engage in various forms of feverish foreplay before having to go back to the mosque an hour or two later, in time for the sunset prayer. Anything was fair game, other than actual vaginal intercourse. This way, I realized later, the imam could avoid the guilt of actually committing adultery, while getting as much as possible out of my “favors.”
This was, as we both knew implicitly, an untenable state of affairs. Something would have to give. Fortunately for the imam, he had the perfect “Islamically acceptable” solution in mind, and it wouldn’t take him long to put it into effect. It was a decision that I would come to regret enormously, but as it turned out, it was only the beginning of my destructive experience with Islam. Things were about to take a new and queasy turn, one that would lead me to the depths of despair, agony, and humiliation before I finally found the way out to physical and mental freedom.