I turned the last page of G. Willow Wilson's memoir, the butterfly Mosque and read the last paragraph. The last few sentences were extra powerful, lyrical and dense with emotion. As I closed the book, which has been my bed-time companion for the past week, I felt a twinge of sadness. I felt I was leaving a friend. A friend who through her journey of trying to live in, around and in between cultures gave me company through my own struggles.
The Butterfly Mosque commences with Willow as a college student at Boston University deep in the midst of spiritual conflict. Raised by atheist parents in Colorado, she is on the cusp of converting to Islam - which she fears will trouble many in her family and close circle of friends. Upon graduation, she is offered a teaching position in a school in Cairo - and so the story begins.
Shortly after her arrival she is introduced through a friend to Omar, who has offered up his time to help Willow and her friend/roommate learn to navigate through the chaotic streets of Cairo. Omar and Willow however, shortly soon after fall in love and Wilson's stay in Cairo becomes much more indefinite and her exchanges with Egyptian families much more intimate. This book is part memoir, part travelogue, part romance.
Many of the write-ups I have read on this book focus plenty attention on her conversion to Islam. The subtitle of the book is after all "A young American Woman's Journey to Love and Islam." However, I do not feel that the book focuses all that much on her exploration and daily practice of the religion. While she challenges commonly portrayed violent stereotypes of Islam through her random conversations with Omar, her interactions with Omar's family and through her interviews with two prominent religious figures in Egypt, she does not ever give a clear explanation of what brought her to this path. Throughout the book I kept wondering, what inspired Willow, a white American raised in an atheist household in Boulder, Colorado (where she no doubt did not interact with many Muslims)to embrace what has become one of the most controversial and maligned religions in the west.
When Willow moves to Cairo, she also chooses over time to alienate herself from other expatriates, delving deeply and completely into the daily life and culture of middle class Egypt. She forsakes her old American ways of being and as best as she can, and assimilates herself into Cairene culture. She is cautious and careful to shake the hand of any man not Omar. She lowers her gaze when meeting another man. Given the huge chasm between her initial descriptions of her life in America and her life as a protected woman in Egypt - I had trouble understanding how her shift in mindset came about but was in awe that it did.
So many couples that are multi-cultural struggle to find that balance to accommodate each other's cultural practices and needs. This story never quite comes to terms with that. Wilson completely envelops herself in Egyptian life and culture and although she repeatedly states how much her life has been enriched, she lacks in all semblances of her life in America. But that extreme sacrifice would seem to me unsustainable over time. This becomes evident as her longing to return home to America grows stronger over time. Finding that intermediary, that balance, is critical and the only way to live between and with both cultures. Her search with Omar for that balance, for a comforting sense of a new normal, not all foreign but not quite home, starts as the book concludes.
What I enjoyed most about the book however, was the journey she takes the reader. We essentially discover Cairo, Cairene society and culture with her. She presented a Cairo, I would never see or experience as a tourist or even as a temporary resident. I was moved with the gentleness and restraint of her love story with Omar - the subtlety with which they court and fall in love. I also relished the rich descriptions of her interactions with Omar's family and how they unequivocally embrace her as their own. And how over time, even the vendors at the local market start to view and protect this foreign American woman as they would any familiar local Egyptian woman.
The butterfly Mosque for me is a book of infinite hope and optimism. It trounces on the theory of the clash of civilizations and celebrates our common humanity above all.