In the spring of 1996, I was in my early twenties, had been studying to be a fine artist for a few years and was nearly done with my bachelor’s degree. I worked a couple of part-time jobs with mentally and physically disabled adults and volunteered facilitating art classes to extremely under-privileged children. I had moved in with a painter and poet friend of mine who was in the advanced stages of AIDS. I had not realized how advanced and was soon caring for him at the end of his life. I lived with and cared for him up until about a week before he died when I had to put him in a hospice. To this day I have some guilt about being responsible for removing him from his home and sending him off to a place where he knew he would die. Though he weighed very little, I couldn’t lift him; especially not out of the bathtub where he was most comfortable and wanted to spend most of his time. Neither of us was sleeping very much and he would call out to God often during the night. Naturally he was being very emotional, having outbursts that confused and frightened me. Though I knew he was very sick, I didn’t want to believe that he was dying–immediately– and I still didn’t think he would die in the “end of the road” hospice. He had always been sick for the few short years that I knew him. He always got better. I had other friends who died from AIDS, but I had not closely witnessed their final days like I had with Don.
Though my transcripts say I did, I don’t remember finishing that semester. I barely remember leaving my jobs I had worked at for a few years and loved so much. I decided to take a year off of everything. I loved the city of my birth where I had a great circle of friends, interesting and plentiful job opportunities; and I was going to a small, prestigious school that had been my first choice for college. Still, I began having this little nagging feeling of “is this it?” Don was my only friend that occasionally discussed God, though rarely as he seemed to understand that Godtalk wasn’t very vogue amongst our circles. Being twenty years older than me, he was uncle-ish, though he would prefer the term big-brother. He was my only friend who I thought of as spiritual.
I didn’t have any spiritual ambitions. I even had this idea that most people (even Jesus) didn’t get into their religion until they were fairly mature, well into their adulthood–definitely not in their hedonistic twenties, so I could wait. I had not been raised religiously and only had a personal consciousness of God. My parents both believed there was a God; we just never discussed it any further. They never said things like “Because that’s how God…” They didn’t go to church. They didn’t pray over their meals.
One day when I was in the fifth grade my classmates were discussing where they had each been baptized. I had no idea what baptism was and I was very interested to hear about all the different churches they went to. Today I doubt that everyone in that room could have been Christian, but on that day, it seemed as I was the only one left out. I asked a few friends if I could go to church with them. I liked Charlotte’s church best and started going regularly with her to the First Baptist Church of South San Francisco. It was in an old theater house with the original elaborate interior and a great, big Jacuzzi in the lobby for baptizing worshippers. There was a full band with an electric guitar and everyone dressed for church. Imagine big hats and enormous jewelry, fur stoles and shiny, bright shoes. Having grown up around theater folks, well, I can easily see why I was smitten with this environment.
I vaguely remember Sunday school in the church basement. I remember bristling at being told that my tomboy-self would have to start wearing a skirt and being further annoyed when my new culottes weren’t good enough. I also vaguely remember making crafts and learning Bible stories. I remember being very uncomfortable with The Conception Story. My young heart just wouldn’t accept it. It made me feel badly about God and intrinsically I felt that it wasn’t right to feel badly about our Creator. I felt as though nothing about God should make me feel uncomfortable. I felt something was wrong and my teachers seemed frustrated with my confusion. My inquisitive disposition often frustrated adults and my Sunday school teachers didn’t seemed to want to explain things to me as much as I wanted. I couldn’t understand the Trinity; there weren’t any answers. One Sunday, Charlotte and I were watching a grown man being baptized in the Jacuzzi and she remarked that I would do that soon. I knew then that I couldn’t and I slowly began excommunicating myself from the church.
Thirteen years later, I wasn’t even aware that I was re-embarking on my search for God. I thought I was only going to check out the other major American metropolises and their terminally hip art schools. I split Don’s things amongst our friends and put my stuff into storage. First on the agenda was a few months in Los Angeles with my step-sister–a generous woman with an unusual, crippling sense of karma. UCLA was cool. The beach was gorgeous and I spent as much time as I could rolling on the cement pathway. But, The Industry was invasive and I didn’t think LA would be the best place for me to study and make art. By the end of the summer I was eager to get on a train and head to New York for more inspiring prospects. My best friend met me at Penn Station and we rushed out to spend the last seventeen dollars in my pocket so I could enjoy complete worldly freedom. Three days in Brooklyn and I had two great jobs with tips to live on. A few weeks later and I had found another room of my own. I was replacing a roommate who was headed off to India to be married. We met very briefly and she left me her futon bed and a collection of paperbacks.
New York had a much better pace for me. I was making lots of new acquaintances, seeing loads of art, reading some good books and eating well for free at my jobs. There are also plenty of great New York State Colleges in addition to the art school I was initially interested in. Though New York was great, very soon into my visit I knew that San Francisco was still the best place for me. So, I enjoyed my time believing I would return home with the right decisions already made.
One night I was helping a new friend paint her new apartment. Afterwards we went to her employer’s restaurant for eats. She introduced me to the chef who she called “cuz.” They explained to me that since she was Jewish and he was Muslim, they were cousins. I had only faintly known a few Muslims back home and my Jewish friends were admittedly secular. One of the things I found odd about New York was everyone’s emphasis on their ethnic, religious or whatever-else identification. Never in my life had I been asked so often “what are you?” That evening, The Cousins gave me an entertaining but accurate religious education. I had never given any thought to Judaism, which I believed you had to be born into and I all I knew about Islam was that Your Black Muslim Bakery served some fine pie. I hadn’t made the typical Arab=Muslim equation, rather I thought of Muslims as being primarily Black Americans and Arabs as some kind of Other like Jews. Looking back, it’s funny that although the three religions are all Abrahamic faiths, I didn’t know that and yet I still thought of them as all being the same—as in the often repeated generalization that all organized religions are the same. Religions may be (ab)used similarly, but they are not the same.
Maybe I was more geography- and history-challenged than your average American. A roommate of mine had once (as in one date) dated a Muslim guy. He didn’t so much as kiss her as he was looking for a girl to marry. We had thought that was amusingly quaint and looked up his country-of-origin in the Encyclopedia. Yes, I was quite ignorant and after my night with The Cousins, I consciously decided to educate myself a bit; Iwas intrigued about the possibility of finding some missing-to-me truth.
Being in New York for just a few more months, I postponed my Truth Quest while I continued working, seeing the sites and hanging with new friends. I did manage to read a couple of the books left in my room and to this day I believe they contributed to my overall conversion process, but Allahualim. The first was Under a Sickle Moon: A Journey through Afghanistan by journalist Peregrine Hodson. The other was Carla Grissman’s Dinner or Herbs, a travel memoir about her experience in a remote village in Anatolia. Neither of these books are written by Muslims and as far as I know, neither author converted. It wasn’t the authors that struck me; it was the manners, generosity and spirits of the subjects they wrote about that stayed with me on my journey.
I went home to San Francisco that summer and readied myself to return to school. Mostly that meant sleeping on my other best friend’s couch and finding a strategically placed job somewhere between Bernal Heights and North Beach (not a difficult task, I’m being facetious). In-between I scoured the used bookstores in the Mission looking for any books about Islam, Sufism and some Judaism. I first read the Quran by going through the index and picking out topics that most interested me. I read sections related to women first. As I’ve said, I wasn’t raised Christian, but I now realize that just being raised in America, I had been well exposed to ideas about the nature of woman that stem from Biblical interpretations. The Quran, especially the story of Adam and Eve (Hawa) are quite different, much gentler, than the Christian version which has so much hostility aimed at Eve. From reading the Quran, I finally felt that God was a merciful being.
When school started up, I was absolutely miserable. Discussing art ad nauseum had lost all appeal. Browsing through the phenomenal collection of art books in library had lost its appeal. My friends, haunts and hobbies had lost their appeals. Someone for some reason had told me about the computer lab having this new thing that was really useful for research; something about a “web.” I remember my first session and how annoyed the computer lab guy was with my complete lack of technical process and silly questions like “Is there someone on the other end right now?” This wasn’t chat or instant messaging I was asking about, these were the first websites I ever saw! Islam was my only keyword search.
I feel a bit for the Muslims coming into the deen through the net these days. There is so much erroneous information about Islam these days, not just from non-Muslims but from Muslims as well. And the hate sites are atrocious. Back then, the sites were so impressive on the new medium. I visited jannah.org and combed through the mamalist every time I went to the computer lab. I was especially impressed by how Muslim women and teens were creating sites. Many had their favorite hadiths and Islamic maxims posted, which helped to flesh out what I was reading in the Quran. Though I had known nothing about Islam before that year, I had peripherally known that those women were oppressed. They certainly didn’t seem so online. The personal narratives of sisters helped me to envision what it could be like to be a Muslim woman. Muslim teenagers were the most impressive, these kids were making sites that praised Allah and explained the fundamentals of Islam! May Allah reward those teens whose sites downloaded side-by-side with music-fan sites and other banalities.
I remember one particular evening reading the Quran in yet another newly rented room of my own. I was actually searching through it for something that I might be able to reject; I couldn’t believe that I was becoming religious. I thought about my friend that had gone to Catholic school. Knowing that she took a World Religion class, I had wondered how she could have overlooked this Truth. I remember being mildly annoyed that no-one had pointed it out to me before. How could this be overlooked? Very soon thereafter I started telling a few friends, co-workers and acquaintances that I was thinking about becoming a Muslim. My God, their responses! I have often said that everyone would have been much happier for me if I had chosen to be a lesbian Buddhist. I couldn’t count how many times people referenced the movie Not Without My Daughter, as if I, a lover of fine film and superior pop-culture, had ever seen a Sally Fields movie. I received advice like “Don’t marry a Muslim and move to his country.” Or people shared their I-knew-a-Muslim-once-experiences with me like “My Muslim drug dealer in India used to give the leftovers to his wife.” These bright days of my enlightenment had a dark cloud that followed me around. No-one really knew anything specific about Islam, but they all disliked it. I find this same phenomenon today in my small city where most people think that they have never seen a Muslim in-person, but still many don’t like that religion.
A little over a decade ago, I looked for masjids in the phonebook, but couldn’t find one. Today I wonder if I looked under “churches” or just how did I even try to look them up? I remembered the masjid in my old neighborhood was in a run-down Victorian and had looked abandoned. I don’t think I had ever seen anyone coming or going from it. Later I would ask a cab driver if he knew where the masjids were in the city. He told me that after vandals attacked them during the Gulf War, many had removed their signs which made them recognizable as masjids—and targets. This sounded unbelievable to me at the time, Allahualim. Before getting up the courage to ask the cabbie, I had already called The Cousins’ restaurant in New York. I asked the brother what I had to do to be a Muslim. He was so surprised to hear that I wanted to be Muslim; may Allah reward him for his contribution to my conversion, ameen. He told me how to say shahada. I think he was crying.