The Butterfly Mosque
by G. Willow Wilson
To say that this book was written by an American woman who went to Egypt, explored Islam, became Muslim, married an Egyptian, and spent a year assimilating into Egyptian society, would be like saying that a human body is composed of a skeleton holding organs and covered by skin. The inner workings of both processes are wonderful, complex, and beyond easy description.
By now, anyone interested in the topic can find numerous accounts of Western women who fell in love Arab men, married, moved to the Middle-East, and brought back stories of assimilation and/or abandonment. This story is different. Willow went to Egypt with nothing more than a niggling urge to explore Islam and the people who live it. She was raised an atheist, and therefore did not wrestle with the usual conundrum of whether or not Jesus was the son of God, a savior (and all that is borne of that belief). She decided (without the help of a Muslim boyfriend) that the evidence for the existence of God not only held water, but held water within Islam.
Youth and nature being what it is, Willow did fall in love with an Egyptian and got married. Her story, however, does not focus upon this process, or upon the religious conversion. Hers is a story that pulls together the disparate elements of her life into a whole that makes sense. Hers is a multi-layered story that not only reveals who she is as an American, but who the Egyptians are, and how the enormous, but sometimes subtle differences between American and Egyptian culture really do clash in ways we cannot even predict.
She writes authentically, honestly. I know this because I, too, married an Egyptian, and I spent a little time in Egypt. No American can write about living in Egypt without addressing the difficulties of daily life there, or the discomfort of trying to stay healthy in a polluted environment. At the same time, no one can deny the spirit of generosity and optimism that percolates through the national character of Egyptians. Egyptians themselves are what make Egypt livable and actually loveable.
This book is well-written from several perspectives. Stylistically, it flows well, without the inconsistencies that sometimes pervade first memoirs. Willow is a good writer, and she knows how to weave objective reality with her own inner reality to present a narrative that carries the reader in and out seamlessly.
I admit to suffering from a sort of jealousy. Willow had the blessing of marrying a man she could talk to, a man whose world view expanded beyond the boundaries of Egypt. Her husband encouraged her to learn colloquial Arabic. Many Arab husbands do not. Willow also drew upon enough intestinal fortitude to stick with Egypt for an extended period of time, long enough to accomplish a decent assimilation.
I married an Egyptian who had what we euphemistically call “issues.” Also, though I loved visiting Egypt, I could never stay in Cairo for more than five days before becoming sick and stressed to the point that I’d have to leave. I’d dreamed of attending school there to learn Arabic, but a dream is what remains after all these years. I miss Egypt. I miss the Middle-East. Willow’s book reminded me why, and renewed my sense of who I am as a result of where I’ve lived.
This book is a gift to those who would venture into the waters of an intercultural life. It is especially good reading for those who have an interest in Egypt– not from an academic point of view but from the view at street level.