The Butterfly Mosque is a memoir. It’s not an autobiography because it doesn’t run a perfect timeline. Willow (I think the G stands for Gwendolyn, but don’t quote me) jumps back and forth quite a bit between using ‘I remember when…’ and ‘I was doing…’ which for me, made the story more engaging. It’s also a bit of a travel narrative as Willow spends a year immersed in Muslim culture in Egypt. This is not a book about Islam. It has lots of references to Islam, Islamic writers and the Quran* and the main character does convert to Islam within the first few chapters of the book, but it’s still not a book about Islam. It is a book about Willow, the faith and culture she embraces and the many, many contradictions she sees while being an American girl married to an Egyptian in a Muslim country.
Willow heads to Egypt after college to spend a year teaching at an English language school in Cairo. Having secretly and somewhat uncomfortably, given her atheist background and the recent events of September 11, embraced Islam, Willow arrives in Egypt with little knowledge of the culture, but ready to embrace all that it entails . She meets Omar and finds herself falling in love with a man she has never even touched. Determined to stay in Egypt with Omar, Willow officially converts to Islam and marries him. Despite being welcomed into Omar’s family and free to worship the god she has chosen, Willow finds assimilation into Egyptian culture difficult. She slowly becomes more and more accepted in her community, but there are problems when she wants to travel the Middle East and even more difficulty when she wants to return home to the States.
This book is a loving recount of a young girl’s year in Egypt. Willow speaks of her hardships and her joys in gorgeous prose and writes observations about religion, culture and humanity that are wise beyond her years. My favourites include
‘With remarkable foresight, the chancellor of BU [Boston University] kept classes in session that day, becoming one of the first to argue that if we disrupted our way of life we would be helping the terrorists.’
‘This is the heart of the clash of civilisations: not the hatred of the Other, but the self-hatred produced by the Other. This is what makes hatred so easy to propagate, and so difficult to counter even for those who question it’s authenticity.’
‘It was such a tantalizing contradiction, being a woman in the Middle East – far less free than a woman in the West, but far more appreciated. When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way woman 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 got 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.’
Doesn’t that last line just make your heart want to weep and sing at the same time? This book is challenging and engaging. It took me a long time to read and even longer to digest in order to write this review.** Read it if you are not Muslim in order to get a little bit of insight into a challenging and adoring world from the point of view of someone who is western born and educated (and therefore a little skeptical). Read it if you are Muslim for a sweet story of love and acceptance and of finding god when god was hard to find. Read it if you are atheist, change the capital g in god it a little g and you will still enjoy the story! But read it. Even if you don’t agree with everything that Willow says – I certainly didn’t, there were some very confronting parts to this book for me – you will still love the story and the writing is superb.
What have you read lately that made your heart sing? I’ve promised Richard that once I finish The Curse of the Mistwraith I’ll finally read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy***, but after that I’m wide open – give me something to read!
*There are like a bazillion ways to spell this word. Don’t bash me.
**Simple as it is.
***42 is now a running joke in our house.