SHAFAQNA- As the call to prayer ended, some of the waiters unhurriedly headed towards the mosque, overwhelmed by the unforgiving heat. It was all so different from Kansk, the snowy town she had left behind in Russia’s Siberia to go on a volunteering trip to Egypt. The 40 days Katja had spent working at the children’s NGO abounded in unexpected encounters with Muslim friends, who lived their religion as a way of life. Suddenly, the question came up.
“I was baptized an Orthodox Christian, but I didn’t believe in God, and I suddenly found myself questioning everything; I was extremely curious to know who was this God they were talking about,” she says. “After I left, I got a fever to return to Egypt. I couldn’t bear staying in Russia, and as soon as I finished university, I came back.” Despite having no job or accommodation, the 21-year-old teacher moved to Cairo and embarked on a “spiritual journey.” “It was a moment where I felt very lost in general, I didn’t know what to do. I had started questioning: what’s the point of life, why am I here? I had an emptiness inside which affected everything around me,” she explains.
Katja’s search first led her to a Catholic Church – the only one performing ceremonies in English – which she attended with a friend. But after an encounter with a Russian Muslim family, everything changed. “I could have embraced another religion, but Islam answered most of the questions I had and stopped the fight inside me about what is right and wrong. Islam is very clear and gives your soul peace when you panic and get stressed. You learn to let go,” she says.
“What I like is the way you approach God. I came to realise that even though I really wanted to pray, I didn’t know how to. In Islam there is a certain ritual, you wear certain clothes, and you sit in a certain way. It teaches you to leave space for God in your life; it’s the same as when you have a husband for instance: you need to dedicate some time for each other to nurture the relationship.”
After her conversion, Katja didn’t notice a stark change in her lifestyle and realised why her friends would tell her that she already had a Muslim mindset before converting. “I didn’t use to drink alcohol. I come from a culture where people drink a lot, and I have seen what happens when people drink too much. The only challenge was telling my family,” she points out.
For her twenty-year-old friends, her decision came as an eccentric choice and the trigger for interesting conversations; but for Katja’s parents, her converting was “a tragedy”. “Their generation does not understand it, perhaps because of the image media created about Islam. My mother said I had been brainwashed and did not speak to me for a month – she probably pictured me in a niqab shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’. It made me feel terrible to know that I was hurting my parents with my decision.”
By Valentina Primo