An unforgettable day in September 2001 shifted my attention to Islam. For years religion played little or no role in my life, even the one I was raised in (Catholicism). The media madness swirling about 9/11 poisoning the US troubled me. Why condemn over a billion Muslims for the horrific actions of a few? A mixed collection of friends always surrounded me but never any Muslims. That would soon change.
Long ago I abandoned my unhealthy habits and nearly everything I did revolved around sports such as jogging, hiking or biking. I dove into animal rescue in 1989 and never left. A pedestrian car accident in 1994 left me with a lifelong disability changed everything. At the end of a two month hospital stay, I returned to an unfamiliar world where I was unemployable, uninsurable and very depressed. Although I wasn’t particularly religious, I did believe my life was spared for a reason. I just didn’t know for what. As a measure of thanks to the Almighty, I devoted myself to volunteer work that continues to this day. I also volunteer to prevent boredom.
After the hysteria of 9/11 died down, Islam still lured me. What should I do? I started riding my motorized scooter (the result of the car accident) near the Tempe mosque, wondering what it was like inside. What about Islam attracted so many people? Now and then I’d see men or women outside but I always choked when I tried to approach someone. What would I say? I supposed I could have just said something simple like hello. So I continued down the street, usually stopping at the Borders Books and Music to browse around and drink coffee.
A newspaper article one day grabbed my attention. Vandals scrawled ugly, vulgar graffiti on the Tempe mosque, making me feel sad. Why attack a place of worship? That was cruel and heartless. It must’ve been a Friday, the Muslim holy day, because there were dozens of people milling about outside as I rode past. Sucking up my fears I proceeded to a group of women. I apologized for the insensitive actions of the vandals who defaced the mosque. Although religion meant little to me at the time, I recognized its importance to others. I would have denounced the vandals had they struck a church, temple or any holy house. Muslim women accepted my good wishes and suggested I return for a Friday prayer service. Dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, I looked inappropriate for the mosque. I said I would come back but never did.
Borders Books and Music eventually filed for bankruptcy so my downtown hangout vanished. On occasion I was a busybody, peaking at mosque activity from the Middle Eastern cafe next door where I sometimes ate with friends. I was never brave enough to make a move and attend a service. There were logistical concerns too. What would I look like in a hijab? I’d always wore hats. I love hats. Without proper supervision, my scarf would be lopsided, loose and lost on my head. I’d probably look like a wash woman. If it the weather was windy, the scarf sail away leaving my head of brown hair exposed. My interests lay dormant, buried underground, but resurfaced years later.
In 2011 I went through my morning ritual, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper when I noticed an advertisement for an interfaith service at the Tempe mosque to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Hailed as a celebration of peace and unity, the event attracted good people of faith, even me. Christians, Jews, Muslims and anyone else interested was invited to attend. I called my friend Mark and he joined me. The imam ordered chairs for 30 people. Over 300 people attended. It was an awesome evening of friendship, caring and spirit of diverse people devoted to a better world. On the way out, Muslim volunteers handed out Qurans. I took one home and placed it on my bookshelf. I never read it. I never read the Bible either.
My interest in Islam persisted although I told no one. As the internet picked up speed, I checked out websites and Facebook pages on Middle East animal rescue. I’ve been involved in animal rescue since 1989 volunteering in animal shelters in several states. There were at least a dozen groups perhaps more in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey, Lebanon, and beyond. Slowly, I connected with Muslims rescuers on line. Eventually, I met Maha from Saudi Arabia. Although we’ve never met in person (I hope we do), we’ve been friends on-line for almost three years. A devout Muslim, she once asked about my Quran. I meant no disrespect to Islam but the Quran was still snuggled safely on my bookshelf. Why don’t you read it, Maha suggested. Why don’t I? I started to read the Holy Book, taking a year to eventually finish. During that time, Maha and I engaged in many discussions about Islam. She also sent me other books about Islam from Saudi Arabia, which I’ve read through as well. I read a book called the First Muslim, an intriguing book about the life of Muhammad. My interest grew steadily. I did not, however, return to the mosque for Friday prayers, rattled with fear of going alone.
I sidetracked human interaction with Muslims by signing onto a Facebook group called Muslims for Progressive Values. There, I met a local Muslim who told me of social group meetings of Muslims. I should attend and meet others. I checked out their schedule but always backed down. What would people think? My journey was still incomplete and I couldn’t yet say I was interested in Islam even though my interest was screaming out to be heard.
For years, nothing made sense nor had it for much of my life. My family had little closeness. I sought guidance from my classmates and friends. As a child, I felt alone and frightened. Without someone to nurture me, I strayed towards trouble. At 15 years old, I drank to excess. I smoked cigarettes. Marijuana was next but I avoided hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, etc. Needles scared me so I refused to inject myself. I was escaped unwanted pregnancies. No way would a baby tie me down especially as a teenager. I also hated pain. I still do. I should’ve found Islam a long time ago, sparing me from many wasted years of drinking, marijuana, and all the wrong people. There’s nothing I can do to change the past. All I can do is look forward and appreciate whatever time I have left.
The door to Islam nudged opened after I started as a volunteer at Sky Harbor airport. Navigators like me assist passengers, their friends and family with questions about flight connections, services such as food, ground transportation, etc. At the airport I met numerous Muslim employees working as housekeepers, baristas in Starbucks, clerks in retails stores, driving intra-terminal buses, taxis, limos, baggage handlers and more. I became friendly with several Somali women, especially one named Qamar. Every time we saw each other we talked. Then in the spring of 2013 Qamar broke the delightful news about her first pregnancy. She’d be leaving soon for maternity leave. As a gesture of good will, I brought a gift for the baby. About four to five months later, she sent me an email along with a baby picture. I visited Qamar and her infant daughter Salmo. Ever since we’ve become good friends. Salmo is like the grand-daughter I never had. Qamar her husband Said are kind, caring and loving people devoted to their daughter, their family and their faith. I am blessed to have them in my life. I was honored to attend Qamar’s swearing in ceremony when she became a US citizen. From them, I learned more about Islam.
About two years ago, I met Nadia, a Pakistani American at the airport. She had asked me for a place to pray. No problem I said pointing out a quiet corner behind security where I was posted that day. We exchanged contact information and keep in touch. A skilled artist with international connections, Nadia too is a devout Muslim who further piqued my interest in Islam. She says her artwork is inspired among other things by Islam.
And there was Diba, who has become my dearest friend and my sister. A simple smile brought surprising changes into my life in July 2013 when a middle-aged Muslim woman wearing a colorful hijab stood outside a security checkpoint.
“Do you need help?” I asked.
“No, thank you,” she said, watching passengers enter and leave the secured area. “I’m dropping off family. They’re flying back to Virginia”
“OK,” I said. “I hope they have a safe journey home.”
Our casual encounter continued. Warm feelings lingered. I didn’t want to leave and neither did Diba. Away went her cell phone and we both started a new phase in our lives. I explained my motorized scooter. Diba too was seriously injured in a car accident. Throughout my three and a half year tenure at the airport, I’ve had intimate conversations with passengers about their lives. I couldn’t let Diba leave without asking if we could get together. Of course, she said, handing me a slip of paper with her phone number. Ramadan, the most sacred Muslim holiday, approached so Diba said we’d meet afterwards. She’d be fasting all day for three weeks, a tradition followed by all Muslims during Ramadan. I understood and looked forward to sharing a meal with her soon.
After that first meal, Diba and her family embraced me as one of their own. Not only have I shared meals with Diba and her husband Abdul but I was invited to numerous family gatherings. From sharing food and conversation, I’ve learned so much about Afghan culture.
Afghan people are thoughtful, generous hosts. As soon as I enter an Afghan home, there are always plates of food, sweets and green tea. Drinking tea is an Afghan tradition. My knowledge of Islam expanded and grew.
On a Friday, the Muslim holy day, I attended my first prayer service with Diba. Following tradition, I wore a hijab for the second time, the first was at an Islamic funeral service, also with Diba. The loosely fitting scarf fell to one side on my head, not quite covering my hair like other Muslim women but I looked presentable enough. I soaked up more and more about Afghan customs and traditions. To add to my growing knowledge, I checked out books from the library. I read about the misery created by the Soviet invasion, the ensuing violence and the cruelty imposed by the Taliban. I gobbled up information as fast as I could.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon, I stopped at an ATM. I needed cash. A surprise call from Diba invited me to join her at the hospital to visit her sister-in-law Maniga who had surgery. Sure I said, I’ll meet you there. Inside a small hospital room, at least a dozen Muslim women and me surrounded Maniga with well wishes. We all talked and laughed. On my way out, I saw more women in hijabs carrying flowers and gifts on the way to see Maniga. I was awe struck by the outpouring of support and concern from the Afghan community for their sister Maniga.
Diba and Abdul moved to southern California in 2013 to be closer to their only daughter where she’s in graduate school. Seeing the moving truck pull away that gray, chilly November day nearly broke my heart but I understood their move. Family is everything in Afghan and Muslim culture. I miss Diba so much but we’re in contact almost every day. Her family considers me one of their own so I see them often, but not often enough. They have jobs, businesses, school, and families of their own.
During the last summer’s Ramadan, I joined Diba’s extended family and friends for evening Iftar’s (breaking the fast) at an Islamic center in Chandler. I was swept up even more into Islam. I cherished my evenings sharing home-cooked food, conversation and prayers with my sisters, some of whom I met for the first time. Women laughed, hugged and traded bits of our lives. Children played under watchful adult eyes. After meals, we took turns cleaning up. At the end of July Ramadan was over. There would be no more evenings at the Islamic Center. I didn’t want it to end. I loved the camaraderie among Muslim women. No one was a stranger. Everyone including me was welcomed. I missed my sisters. I hope they missed me too.
In the summer of 2013, as I soul searched Islam, I discovered AMWA (American Muslim Women’s Association). I read of their toy drive during Ramadan. For seven years I was a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels, an all volunteer group that tries to break the cycle of violence in abused, abandoned, neglected and at risk children through healing pet therapy. My adopted dog Luke and I visited a homeless shelter. At Christmas time, friends donated gifs for the children. Those small presents boosted their spirits, bringing smiles and cheer to children whose lives were shattered by poverty, homelessness and sometimes domestic violence. I imagined that Ramadan gifts would be just as uplifting for Muslim children so I donated a few toys. AMWA’s Facebook page listed several drop off locations one of which was the Tempe mosque. When I dropped off my donations, no one was there. Just the box. Disappointed, I had wanted to meet the women involved so I noted the date of their annual meeting on my calendar and showed up alone with sweaty palms. I exhaled relief when Diba joined me. I continued my affiliation with AMWA, however, growing more confident each time I attended an event. AMWA’s commitment to women in the community and their devotion to improving lives of new refugees impressed me. I wanted to serve along with the sisters of AMWA.
And then there was the MSA (Muslim Student Association) at Arizona State University. I wish I was young again so I could hang around with these energetic, enthusiastic and motivated young ladies and men. That’s an impossible dream so I can only admire and support them, wish them well and hope they can change the world in a way our generation failed to do. I’m from the Woodstock era. It’s not that we didn’t try but along the way so much has happened to twist and turn the world around by war, hatred, poverty and extremism that threatens our very existence.
I attended an interfaith dinner sponsored by the MSA late last year. What an awesome evening. I made new friends, Sarah and Mohammad, who have become like family to me. I enjoyed an evening of sharing, compassion and kindness. What more could I ask for? I e-mailed my favorable impressions with ASU president Michael Crow who later sent a letter to MSA. And several weeks later I met Mr. Crow in person at the airport where he was a passenger headed to a flight. I introduced myself and again complimented the MSA. Thanks students for making this a better world. Don’t give up trying either.
I don’t remember where I met Saba. My short-term memory took a wallop in the car accident of 1994. I can remember what I did 30 years ago but often forget what I did the day before. In any event, we ran into each other on Christmas Day 2014, at Muslim bowling, apparently an annual event for Muslims in the Phoenix area. I stopped by on the way to my friend Tui’s. Her family like Diba’s accepts me as one of their own. Annual gatherings are about family, food and fun. There’s nothing religious about them except a prayer of thanks at dinner. We are thankful for each other. In talking Saba and I shared much in common and exchanged phone numbers. We eventually met for lunch, talking more about our lives. One evening as we walked to our cars Saba asked me if I had ever said the Shahada, the declaration of faith. Although I attend mosque services every Friday and pray daily, I had not said the Shahada. I said it right there on the spot, repeating it word for word after Saba. That Friday after services Saba’s husband announced there was a sister making her Shahada. I spoke into the microphone, repeating words in Arabic and English. I was confident and proud, even if I couldn’t quite grasp every Arabic word. Afterwards, so many sisters hugged me, congratulated me, embraced me. I felt loved and wanted as never before. Thanks Saba for making this special.
Every Friday at prayer services, imams speak of love, kindness, caring and family. There is no talk of hatred. Ever. At Muslim family gatherings, there is always food, fun and lots of love. Afghans always serve green tea. At community events, people join together for the common good such as raising money for hunger or to help refugees settle in. I joined the MSA students for an afternoon of game playing on campus. What fun to play Scrabble. No one had to ask me to become Muslim. Their behavior showed me the true meaning of Islam. Don’t be fooled by the few who strayed and shame us all by their frightful behavior. I wish they’d repent and end the violence that harms us all. As for me, I’ve experienced only love, kindness, compassion and caring. I hope it never ends either. I’d be lost again and I can’t ever imagine going back down that road.
So there you have it. Many people contributed to my choice. Thank you all. After a long journey that included a serious car accident, a suicide attempt and years of searching, I finally found a place to fit in. I’m sorry it took nearly 60 years but at least I arrived.