Book club: Tiptoeing between East and West…if a butterfly flaps its wings in Egypt

I hate the phrase “clash of cultures” but one of the themes in the Butterfly Mosque: A young American woman’s journey to love and Islam (by G Willow Wilson) brings the phrase to mind: how does a Western American revert navigate her new life as a Muslim in Cairo?

When talking of her reversion she says that she gives the convenient answer that she decided to convert during college (which is sort of true), but that in another sense she felt that she was always Muslim, since she discovered in the Quraan what she already believed.

In trying to understand the difference between culture and religion, Willow concludes that culture belongs to the imagination.  To judge it rationally is to misunderstand its function.  She questions why for example Egyptian men refrain from kissing women (but would kiss other men) and Americans are afraid to kiss other men (but would kiss women).  She gives up debating why culture is how it is, saying that the search for the meaning behind culture is as “inconclusive as searching for the practical function of a bow tie, or arguing the logistical merits of doorknobs”.

While culture may be confusing, religion is not.  Religion gives her the unity and peace she was searching for.

The culture in Egypt is at first unsettling and foreign to Willow, so she decides to visit Iran – her reasoning being that if she goes to a place even more foreign and different, Egypt will begin to feel normal – and it works.  Weaving herself into the fabric of Egyptian life, she comes to enjoy the interconnectedness of Egyptian families, where the whole family works together to create a balance in which everyone has a place and is protected and loved.  After a while, she notices that just as she begins to realize her milk or other groceries are low, her brother-in-law will arrive with a fresh gallon of milk.  Some might find the closeness of family ties in Egypt stifling, but Willow embraces it.  Her family treats her with fondness and affection and tries to gently guide her in the ways of Egyptian women.

She also writes about the care and concern of other women who are not family: for example, a lady on the bus who would gently tug her Hijab into place if it slips loose, not because she is being judgmental or conservative, but because she is being protective of her fellow Muslim sister.

The book is an interesting look into the view of a Westerner who throws herself headlong into life as a Muslim wife in Egypt, and it is filled with thought-provoking observations.

G Willow Wilson is so cool because she is versatile.  Apart from this memoir, she has written a great semi-fantasy novel called Alif the Unseen, about a computer hacker, the Middle East, Jinns and ancient books.  She is also the writer behind the latest Ms Marvel comic (Ms Marvel being a Pakistani immigrant – I am just fascinated that we have a mainstream superhero that’s a Muslim girl).

I also read this article by Willow (click here to read it) about the women’s carriage in the trains in Egypt (a separate carriage just for women and children) and about all of the happenings that go on in this hidden world.

Generally, when speaking to or reading about reverts, I always marvel at the wonder and awe that they feel for Islam – it seems that we who grew up as Muslims have lost some of that magic feeling, and I wish there was a way for us to get it back. Well, I’m going to try.


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