“I felt like I was a refugee in my own country” – Life After Reversion to Islam, Part 1

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SHAFAQNA – Après nous, le déluge

As a little girl, I was quite religious. I was absolutely devoted and quite close to Jesus as only a child could be,[1] and I said my prayers dutifully every night before I went to bed. I was happy to be a good little girl, but at the same time I was perplexed about God. Who was Jesus and who was God? Were they the same person? How could that be? I used to lay across my grandmother’s bed and stare up at the portrait of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus  – who I was so in love with – and the “spirit,” if you will, in a cloud above and just to the right of him. I was quietly perplexed, silently haunted, but I never articulated my misgivings and lack of understanding about who God was.

I always had some kind of metaphysical, cosmological question ready for my father, even at five years old, that he could never answer. I used to stare into the mirror at myself, not knowing who I was or why I was here or even why I was living with and a part of this particular family. I always felt like I was a stranger and I had another destiny.

Allah (swt) called me to that destiny throughout my life. It began with birth. Since I am Iranian, Italian and Norwegian by blood, and I was adopted at six weeks old, my journey to Islam was a very long and circuitous one.

I was raised to be Christian – non-denominational Protestant – and went to a Christian pre-school. We stopped going to church when I was seven years old. My mother has always said it was because she wanted to let us make our own decisions about what we wanted to be and that worship can take place anywhere and doesn’t depend on a church setting, but in reality? In reality, we all lost our spiritual footing, as you will later see.

My adopted father had been raised Catholic, but had converted to Protestantism upon marrying my adopted mother. Occasionally, on trips back to Boston, where they were both originally from, me and my brother were forced to go to Catholic mass with one of our more religious aunts. Other than listening to the televangelists on Sunday mornings with my grandma, my mother was always reciting the Serenity prayer when we were troubled. This was the only religion we had for many years.

I lost my faith early. I became an atheist at ten years old after I pleaded to Jesus every night to stop the vicious bullying I was experiencing at school. My prayers were not answered and I didn’t understand why until many, many years later. I also had a difficult home life since my parents divorced when I was three years old and the burden was on my mother to care for me and my brother financially, emotionally and in every other way – even though our grandmother lived with us – and the stress took its toll on all of us. If anything could make me lose my faith, and I was too young to contemplate that anything would, it was this – seemingly no escape from pain, hardship and sadness.

I always knew I was half Iranian, but I didn’t know what it meant to be Iranian. It was something foreign, cute, related to higher education and academics, maybe. From the Middle East, wherever that was. My mother called me to the TV one night to show me what was happening in Iran, my birth father’s home country. Right before my very eyes, the Islamic Revolution of Iran was taking place by fits and starts. We would watch the news daily, following the events of the revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis.

I hated it when demonstrators shouted “Marg bar Amrika!” because I didn’t understand why they hated my country. To me, America was rock and disco music, Donnie and Marie, ice cream trucks in parking lots at the beach, large expanses of green grass to lay down on under shady trees, heavenly blue skies with light planes flying above, the monotonous but calming whizz of lawnmowers on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and consuming how-many-licks-does-it-take-to-get-to-the-center-lollipop and forgetting to count. Why would my birth father’s country wish death on us? I couldn’t understand.

“Why are my people trying to hurt my people?,” I would ask my mother. She had no answer.

I was never bullied at school for being Iranian, however, because no one could tell what I was. Like a light-skinned black girl, I passed for white. So, instead, I was bullied about it at home. My brother knew I had Iranian blood, and he hated Iran. He used to have a picture of Imam Khomeini on his dartboard. He’d yell at me, “Go back home to the Ayatollah!,” and then he’d throw the darts, continually piercing the newspaper and making tens of tiny holes in Imam’s face. In America, we had been taught by the media to think that “the Ayatollah Khomeini” was Satan incarnate and that Shias were crazed revolutionaries ready to foment coup d’etats and revolutions around the world at any moment. It was around this same time that I was viciously bullied and abused by my classmates at school. I used to practice my English vocabulary by doing a dhikr of all the words I could use to describe what was being done to me. Humiliation. Oppression. Injustice. Cruelty. Torture.

Since the Islamic Revolution of Iran happened – for so long I mistakenly just called it the Iranian Revolution – I watched and read every news story on television and in magazines and newspapers about the Middle East, especially Iran, I could. I diligently read Newsweek and Time, scanning every issue for any mention of Iran. I checked out any book my local library had on Iran. At eleven years old, I knew who the major politicians in Iran were. This was also around the time of my first experience of Shia Islam.

Ted Koppel, the famed US broadcast journalist, did a special report on Qom that aired on television. He described Qom as the most conservative place in Iran, full of clerics. It didn’t seem like a place I wanted to go to – but then they showed the shrine of Lady Fatima Masooma and I immediately fell in love with what I was seeing. I had never seen anything so beautiful in all my life. I remember telling myself that one day I would go there and see her shrine, but I had no intention of being Muslim.

Somewhere along the line, I remember hearing what I now know to be noha or latmiya on TV when the news was featuring Iran, and possibly Iraq. To me, it was the most touching, haunting, heartfelt “music” I had heard in my life, but I was at the mercy of TV broadcasters as to when and how I would hear it and I fall into a heavenly spell of infatuation and delight.

At the time, I was a bit of a tomboy and a fan of Rush, Devo and Blondie. Music and books were my life. Eventually, I became a punk rocker in my early teens and always had a thing for alternative culture. When I was about thirteen, I did try to search for another religion. I had a set of encyclopedias that my grandmother bought me when I was eight years old. I read about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Every religion had something special, but none seemed to satisfy me.I found something wrong with each one – Hinduism had the caste system, Buddhism said all life was pain and I’d had enough of that. Islam…well, I would learn all about Islam from the news for years and I had no interest in it.

So I became a nihilist, an anarchist, not really believing in anything except pain and destruction. I became violent, and moody. I liked hard, often disturbing music, and I went slam-dancing every weekend to punk shows since I was fifteen.

Around this same time, the Iran-Iraq war had been raging on for years. The first time I heard of Imam Hussein was during a feature report on the war. The segment featured mourning women in an Iranian graveyard, with spectacular graves featuring each martyr’s picture and beautiful Persian script underneath. It must have been around Ashura because the journalist related the mourning of the women to the mourning of Imam Hussein, who had been killed 1, 400 years earlier. Every year, it was said, Shi’ites around the world commemorated the anniversary of his death. The journalist made it seem like such a silly thing, just by the tone of his voice. I was sixteen years old, and I believed everything he said, just as I had always believed what the journalists said about the Middle East and Iran. I mean, why would they lie? How silly was it to mourn someone who died so long ago!

Even though I was not Muslim then, I always look back on this time and this generation, the Revolutionary Generation, as my own. I get nostalgic for it whenever I hear old noha’s from the 80s, and I feel like Iranian history is a part of my history, even though the country and what happened in that time was far from my reality, it was brought to life for me through television, and gave me some kind of cultural identity that I was sorely missing and that I would misunderstand for years.

I myself began writing poetry and making drawings about peace, justice and revolution. I remember one called “Your Own Way to Paradise.” Essentially, the sentiment behind it was summed up in one of its lines – “An eye for an eye just makes more people die.” The Iran-Iraq war would end within two years. Little did I know what revolutions were coming in my life and how they were fomented by the Shi’ite religion of Islam, which, as the media said, was every ready to create coup d’etats and uproot the status quo wherever it went.

By Kawther Rahmani

 

[1] – And Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3, The Holy Bible

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