Title: The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman's Journey to Love and Islam
Author: G. Willow Wilson
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Year Published: 2010
Notes: I got this book at the library, after waiting for its release for about six months.
G. Willow Wilson's memoir is as complex as people's identities; this is not merely a love story, or a conversion memoir, or the tales of an American expat, or the experiences of a woman in a male-dominated culture. I was drawn to this book because, having lived in Egypt myself (though under the umbrella of a 'structured' study abroad program at the American University in Cairo), I was curious to hear this woman's story. How did her experiences change her life so intimately and drastically?
Wilson is an astute observer who looks critically at both Egypt and Egyptians, as well as the United States and Americans. She is not harsh to either, but since she is betwixt and between Arab and American, she navigates the differences and similarities with clear observations and anecdotes. Wilson seems to have an enormous capacity for understanding and relating to other humans, and I find her to be a reliable memoirist. She is well-versed in Qur'an, Muslim folklore, and Middle East history, with a growing sense of Egyptian social norms. Conversely, Wilson grew up atheist and participated in American popular culture for years. These experiences, I believe, have allowed her to identify and critique hypocrisy and paradoxes from each side:
"I think this holds true on a larger scale: of the Middle Easterners I have met who resent the West (and specifically the United States), the vast majority resent it because they perceive it to be a military and economic juggernaut bombing whole countries into rubble, putting local industries out of business (though this title is slowly passing to China), and succeeding and succeeding where the Middle East fails. Religion never enters the discussion." —p135This is direct commentary on Wilson's personal experiences, but I found it wonderful that she converted to Islam or embraced its role in her life prior to her engagement and subsequent marriage to Omar. People often assume that individuals convert to Islam because they are persuaded or forced to do so. Though Islam is a proselytizing religion, it maintains many of the same tenets as monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity, and for that reason has broad-based appeal.
Wilson and her friends are not left unscathed by the post-9/11 political environment. Though it is not central to this memoir, some of Wilson's colleagues and friends are investigated by federal agents; her phone is tapped at times. These are the realities of contemporary American security concerns, and I commend Wilson for her treatment and discussion of them in this book.
Wilson's writing is a pleasure to read. I found it to be purposely detailed and emotional while also succinct. She does not waste any time skirting around issues, but boldly plucks them. Her stories of not eating anything except cheese and bread reminded me of my own time in Egypt—taxicab drivers, the incredible disparity from neighborhood to neighborhood, the strange lack of sweating. She, like me, agrees that to be a Middle East expert you must live amongst human beings in the Middle East.
What may draw many readers in is the love story. Wilson's storybook romance is full of uncertainty, cultural barriers, and the mystery of romance in any society. Yet despite their differences, Wilson and Omar find many more similarities. Readers will find their love fascinating and beautiful.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about Islam or American Muslim converts. You do not need to be learned in either subject to read this book, though it may help. I found the use of Arabic and either Muslim or Arabic quotes throughout the text to be wonderful. I think that this book is a good counterpoint to Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who depict a negative image of Islam that is quite unrealistic, yet garners great attention from American media.
I give this book 4.5 stars.