The answer is simple – by following one’s heart and by no means do I refer to my relationship with B. – not at all. Deep in my heart I knew I wanted to convert to Islam at least a month before I learnt about my husband’s existence and the ground for this decision had been prepared for about six months prior to this realisation, which takes us back to November/December 2015, but the seeds for my transformation were sown perhaps as early as a couple of years back.
At the time (2013/2014) I was living in San Sebastian, a gorgeous Basque city in the north of Spain, around 40 km from the French border, where I spent four years, following my four-year period of living in the UK and prior to my one year at UCL in London. Life in San Sebastian is very comfortable and peaceful. The sea, endless walks on the beach, also to work, hiking in the mountains, indulging in good cinema and attending the International Film Festival (during which back in 2012 I decided to go back to university and study film, a dream that eventully came true 3-4 years later) was my reality, in addition to working and studying various things, of course. All in all, I was living a prety comfortable life and could have carried on if I’d wanted to. After all, in our day and age living a cushy life seems to be an ultimate goal and why shouldn’t it be, right? We have access to virtually everything, why not take advantage of it. I noticed, though, that we have grown accustomed to taking advantage of things to such an extent that the fine line is often crossed and it’s no longer clear whether we are taking advantage of things or…people, as a result of which all sorts of relationships start getting shallow, superficial and devoid of meaning, centred on having fun and flaterring our ego. As a result of this hedonistic and opportunistic approach, we begin treating other people as disposable products. Don’t get me wrong – I met loads of amazing people in Donosti (the Basque name for San Sebastian) whom I often think of and with great fondness and in all fairness, I don’t believe my observations were about San Sebastian as such – I think I would have felt like that in any European country – it was more about timing rather than a place. However it was there where I started missing something and feeling uncomfortable inside this bubble. At the time things were already brewing in the world, like the war in Syria and anti-immigrant voices in Europe, but in Donosti it felt as if we had nothing to do with, it didn’t concern us, that our indulgence in the consumeristic culture and disregard for values other that the ones that were convenient for us had no relevance whatsover to what was happening out there. Basically, I felt that though we were living in the era of the so-called progress, we started regressing as human beings.
In my teens I used to be a deeply religious person. When I prayed, I mulled over each and single sentence to avoid repeating the same thing over and over and say it with understanding and conviction. Not only did I go to church on Sunday, but also every single day for two consecutive years. I celebrated, or at least tried to celebrate Christmas and particularly Easter the way they were meant to: as religious anniversaries of love that God had poured all over us. I read religious books, attended retreats. After I graduated from secondary school I even wanted to become a nun! Over the years and for various reasons, I lost this faith and enthusiasm, and became a part of a system devoid of religion and also, largely – of values, unfortunately (this doesn’t mean that a person who doesn’t believe in God can have no values, though I think it helps, but I’m only talking about my experience).
I started to feel that the shallowness of our lives had something to do with the fact that we’d been losing our Faith. When on Christmas Eve 2014, which I spent in Donosti alone, I went to the Buen Pastor (literally Good Shepherd) cathedral for the midnight mass, there were a handful of people, mostly Latin American immigrants. It kind of made me sad. The Christian world , turning a blind eye to the unwanted and the less fortunate victims of the war and beginning to shame immigrants, was celebrating, at the same time, the birth of Jesus (the Son of God Himself, as believed in Christianity) among animals in the stable because Mary and Joseph were themselves rejected by everyone that night. A very Christian attitude, indeed, and since then it has only been getting worse.
A year later I find myself in London, finally doing the long-awaited degree. I dedicate Christmas Day volunteering in a community centre in central London where I meet both Christians, who had no one to spend Christmas with and Muslims, some of whom were refugees (if you didn’t follow my first blog, you can find the story here) whose children wanted to do something Christmassy like their Christian classmates. It’s not the first time I have a conversation with Muslims: I used to have super cool Muslim teacher-colleagues (surprisingly, none of them were terrorists!), but yes – the first time when my perception of the West is beginning to change. Prior to that day I had spent 2.5 months working as a Christmas temp for Boots, the UK’s leading pharmacy-led and beauty retailer, in their flagship store called Sedley Place in Oxford Street in London. Apologies to regular readers for my frequent recollection of this short, but highly traumatic episode in my life, but looking back it seems that it was also the most eye-opening of experiences. During that Christmas time at Boots, I witnessed and experienced the least compassionate side of the Christian world (which I was still a part of) that was preparing itself to celebrate yet another anniversary of the birth of Jesus, but at the same time indulging in raging, mindless consumerism and demonstrating growing disrespect for people and values, which I experienced first-hand by frequently being treated with disrespect and humilitated by frenzied customers trying to get that perfect Christmas gift, but also by managers forever obsessed with increasing the sales, particularly at Christmas. Madness!! (Not) surprisinly, just a few streets away in a little Catholic church of St James’s where I’d go to get away from it all, the numer of people attending Christmas services was next to nothing compared to the numer of people attending shops in the hellish Oxford Street in preparation for the same event. I felt lost in this all and had nowhere to go. I’m pretty sure that I became more open and receptive to other cultures as a result of the fact that I witnessed the European Crisis and Decadence (capital C & D intended) at its best. Of course, Europe is much more than C&D and surely there are also Muslims obsessed with accumulating wealth – I am simply giving an insight into my frame of mind at the time, an indirect result of which were the decisions I made afterwards that took me where I am now.
When I finally managed to get away from London and began working at the University of Liverpool – a safe haven, I think I was ready to almost start from scratch, accept new ideas, if you like, though I had no clue what was going to happen. It isn’t to say that I wasn’t terrified when I first stood in front of a class consisting of Muslim students, mostly men, and I was convinced (still, according to popular belief) that they were going to disrespect me for being a female, and on top of that – their teacher! Needless to say, not only was that not the case whatsover, but also I had hardly been treated with such respect and kindness before. Both my male and female Muslim students were definitely amongst the most gentle (together with the Chinese) people I have ever taught.
I wanted to make the most of it and was inspired to learn more about Islam, because my factual knowledge was still rather limited. (One of my ex-students, a Pole living in Japan at the moment, has recently told me that there should be a course on Religious Studies at schools. In Poland we used to have R.E. but they were about studying Catholic religion rather than religions of the world). I wanted to get to the bottom of things and find out if what the mainstream media said about this religion was really true. Can you guess what the answer to this was? Over the course of a couple of months I learned that Christianity and Islam had much more in common that we tend to think: we share the prophets, historical religious events and values. Both religions revere Jesus, but whereas Christians believe him to be the Son of God and the awaited Messiah (Christ) prophesied in the Old Testament, in Islam, Jesus (Isa) is considered one of God’s important prophets and also the Messiah born off a virgin, but not the Son of God and not crucified but yes – physically raised into Heaven by God.
The thing that we don’t have so much have in common is that for an ordinary Muslim person religion is an integral part of life, a way of life (details to follow), which I really liked, e.g. all of my students (adults) had no problems declaring themselves as believers and discussing their faith. I remember thinking: how many Christians would be prepared to openly admit that they believed in God? In Christianity, it seems as though religion has become an addition to life, at most (I know there are exceptions). At the time, I was struggling with life and I think I needed God, I wanted values back in my life, but full-time, not as an addition. Other things that I liked was, for instance, the idea that in Islam God, or prophets for that matter, have no visual representation, i.e. there is no artwork representing them; there isn’t confession like in Catholicism; there is only One God as opposed to the Chrisitan doctrine of the Holy Trinity, i.e. the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit – as “one God in three Divine Persons”, which is a confusing for some Christians I spoke to, including for me.
It was all happening around the time of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting from dawn to dusk and a time of spiritual reflection, improvement, increased devotion and worship. I remembered that in Christianity Lent used to perform a similar function: between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday we were supposed to prepare for the Resurrection through prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement, and self-denial. We also used to observe some sort of fasting on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and (I think) partly on Christmas Eve (at least in Poland), plus we were supposed to avoid meat on Fridays throughout the year. With sadness I realised that all, or at least most of these traditions, were no longer observed, which I linked to the deterioration and/or disappearance of value systems. I envied my Muslim students when they were about to start Ramadan and when it ended at the beginning of July – I went to Manchester for Eid festival (pictures below).
In one of the conversations with my students which took place in April-June my heart skipped a beat. I distinctly remembered thinking that I wanted to be a Muslim, though I must admit that at the time I welcomed this thought with surprise and fear rather than excitement. It was about a month before I actually decided to learn Urdu and B. came into my life as a teacher. I still would have laughed if someone told me that 3.5 months later I would be on my way to Pakistan. Mind you, though deep inside I knew I wanted to, I wasn’t even sure I would convert when I was going there. After all, it is not necessary for a non-Muslim woman to convert in order to marry a Muslim man (it is, if it’s the other way round), plus I somewhat struggled to let go of what I was raised to believe in. Before I actually converted, I spent a couple of months studying: reading, watching videos, e.g. TED Talks about Islam and religion in general, given not only by Muslim by also Western scholars. I asked and continue asking question, particularly the uncomfortable ones, made peace with my religious past and eventually felt ready enough to do it. Just for the record, no one forced me or put me under pressure.
My journey as a Muslim has barely just began and it seems like I’ve got tons to learn, which is a little overwhelming at times, so I’m taking it easy. It’s also exciting because I have the impression that I’m constantly expanding my horizons. In future posts I will share what I learnt in my pre-conversion research and what’s like to be a Muslim on a day-to-day basis, but the next post is likely to be about Pakistan as a country of contrast.
P.S. 1: There is a wonderful talk on Ted delivered by a female rabbi in which she encourages people to reinvent their religion, regardless of what it might be (she’s not at all trying to convert anyone to Judaism). The introduction reads as follows: At a moment when the world seems to be spinning out of control, religion might feel irrelevant or like part of the problem. But Rabbi Sharon Brous believes we can reinvent religion to meet the needs of modern life. In this impassioned talk, Brous shares four principles of a revitalized religious practice — and offers faith of all kinds as a hopeful counter-narrative to the numbing realities of violence, extremism and pessimism. Totally worth it!
P.S. 2: The other day while driving in Islamabad, we went past two quite spectacular Christian churches that I hadn’t seen before. I might have already mentioned that in B.’s office there are also Christians, including his boss, and they all get along just fine. Contrary to popular opinion, Christians are not persecuted in Pakistan for their beliefs.