Friday, August 13, 2010

My Conversion

I have often been asked how, why, when, and where did I convert to Islam. I always hesitate before I answer. Not because I don't know, or I am at a loss for words, or I don't want to share - my faith is a deeply personal thing for me, and those things have always been hard for me to discuss with others. It is now Ramadan, and I do like to revisit that life changing decision during this holy month.
The decision was twenty years in the making. It began when I accepted my second Peace Corps assignment in Yemen. Honestly, when I got the call, I had to run to a map to find the country (I did have a rough idea). I was not wild about the assignment, but I had learned that my expectations were often wrong, and I was sure such a new and strange environment would be exciting. I gave little thought to religion when I went, I spent more time on language and culture. And for a long time, I believed the things I saw there were cultural, but I was wrong.
From the beginning of my experience in Yemen, I had ambivalent feelings about my interactions with the people there. I saw a lot of things that I did not like or understand, but I also sensed a deep sense of dignity in many of the people I met. True to my nature, I focused on the negative, but did not forget the positive. It was those positive images that planted the seed that eventually brought me to Islam.
The Yemeni language trainers I worked with were amazingly patient and kind to me despite my occasional obstinance. I wasn't always a good student, but they took it in stride, and when my primary post didn't work out, several of them asked for me to be placed in their home villages. I was very humbled, the first of many times in the next two years.
Living in the refugee camp was wonderful and terrible at the same time. I loved the simplicity of each day. I had a sterno stove and boiled vegetables for my dinner. I ate tomatoes and onions with a little vinegar and oil, and made tea with fresh ginger, cardamom, and cloves. I sat in my wheelbarrow and washed myself with water from two buckets. I learned to wash very late, because it embarrassed me when the Eritrean women would insist to pull the water from the well for me. The women had woven grass rugs for me and even crocheted a very colorful throw for my bed. Every night I would try to read while the kids rollicked through my tent. It was the closest I had ever come to comfort and peace. This sense of contentment was often broken though by illness, violence, and death.
I began to realize that my admiration for the people in the camp was a reaction to their profound sense of faith. They had seen horrors I could not imagine, and yet they were still kind and compassionate, and very patient with me. I watched as they lived their lives, day to day. How they overcame tragedy, how they laughed at everything common and good. I had so much more than they, yet it was I who was empty, poor. I envied that inner tranquility that guided their lives.
After I left Yemen, I maintained contact with many Muslims wherever I went. In graduate school, I taught a Saudi student who eventually became a great friend and boss. He reminded me of so many Muslim fathers I had met - very loving and gentle with his family. Perhaps it was my own failings as a father that struck such strong chords witnessing these men interact with their children. He also had a very deep sense of dignity without the righteousness I had seen in other men of other faiths. I followed him to London and worked with him for a year in an Islamic school. We made great strides together, but I never came close to modeling the professional and compassionate posture he maintained always. I like to think I did learn though.
Upon returning to the States, I eventually ended up in Oregon, where I found myself pretty much alone. I spent long hours thinking about my life and my deep sense of disconnection. I wasn't looking or searching for an answer, I simply returned to that place where I had seen and felt a great deal of what I lacked - Islam.
I had many Muslim friends in Oregon, and I enjoyed spending time with them. I had another friend who lived overseas who was also a great influence on me. She was much younger, but was very poised and practiced her faith with quiet passion. I admired her very much, and I valued her friendship greatly. She was the first person I contacted when I converted.
The decision was very easy in hindsight. It was shortly before Ramadan three years ago, while I was visiting the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles of all places. I remember watching a woman who was introduced as a Holocaust survivor (she was three when she left the camp) discussing anti-Semitism and other issues. The presentation was interesting, but I was very upset with the final portion of it. She showed a piece about the alleged slave trade in Sudan. I had studied this issue, and knew that many governments, the UN, UNICEF, and dozens of other international agencies had condemned the reports of the Christians in Sudan allegedly "purchasing and releasing" Muslim slaves. I realized that in the course of her talk, she had showed Jews, Blacks, Native Americans, and many others being victimized in the past and present. There was no mention of Gaza or Palestine, nor of the massive fences and concrete barriers I had seen in Jerusalem, segregating and degrading Muslims. Instead, her presentation ended with a few Muslim "slave traders."
It wasn't my anger over the portrayal of Muslims or the omission of Israeli bigotry that prompted me to convert that week. It was the peace I felt every time I went back to those interactions in the camp, with my boss and his family, with my friend. I also knew that it was time for me to "submit" to my God. I had not submitted to anything for a long time, an inheritance of my youth - I survived my step-father and hadn't bowed before another man since. It was time for me to open my heart and allow myself to forgive, love, and live.
I don't pray like I should, but I am trying. I work hard to live my faith. It is not just a matter of not drinking, smoking, being promiscuous. It is a matter of living like a man who has the contentment of God's love in his heart. I hope people see that, not for my vanity, just my salvation.

أنا كثيرا ما سئلت كيف، لماذا، ومتى، وأين أعتنقت  الإسلام.دائما أتردد قبل ان أجيب .ليس لانني لا أعلم أو ليس لدي الكثير من الكلمات أو لا أريد أن شارك قصتي لكن إيماني هو شي شخصي عميق بالنسبه لي.
وهذه الأمور كان دائما من الصعب بالنسبة لي مناقشتها مع الآخرين.
الآن هو شهر رمضان  .وأنا أتطلع لإعادة النظر في هذا القرار المصيري "الذي يغير الحياه" في هذا الشهر الفضيل. وكان قرار عشرين عاما في طور التكوين.
وقد بدأ هذا  عندما قبلت بلدي الثاني مهمة فيلق السلام في اليمن.
بصراحة، عندما حصلت على دعوة، وكان علي أن أذهب  إلى خريطة للعثور على الدولة (وقد أخذت  فكرة تقريبية).
لم أكن وحشي حول الاحالة، ولكن كنت قد علمت أن توقعاتي كانت في كثير من الأحيان خاطئة، وأنا على يقين من أن مثل هذه البيئة الجديدة والغريبة ستكون مثيرة.
عندما ذهبت إلى هناك أعطيت القليل من الفكر ل الدين والمزيد من الوقت ل اللغه والثقافة .ولفترة طويلة اعتقدت أن الأمور التي رأيتها هناك كانت ثقافية لكنني كنت مخطئا
. من بداية تجربتي في اليمن، كان لي مشاعر متناقضة حول المعاملات التي أجريتها مع الناس هناك. رأيت الكثير من الأشياء التي لم أكن أحبها أو فهمها، ولكن أنا أيضا أحسست بالاحساس العميق بمكانة و كرامة كثير من الناس الذين التقيت بهم. استنادا إلى  طبيعتي ، ركزت على السلبيات، ولكن لم انسى الإيجابيات . كانت تلك الصور الإيجابية التي زرعت البذرة التي اوصلتني في  نهاية المطاف إلى الإسلام. 
كان مدربي اللغه اليمنين الذين عملت معهم صبورين و لطيفين معي بشكل مدهش. لن أكن طالبا جيدا دائما ,ولكنهم تقبلو ذلك . عندما لم تنجح مهمتي الأولى "الابتدائيه" العديد منهم عرض علي أن امكث في بلدتهم.كنت متواضعا "خجولا من تعاملهم الجيد" كانت الأولى من عدة مرات قادمه في السنتين المقبلتين.
العيش في مخيم للاجئين كان رائع ورهيب في نفس الوقت.  أحببت البساطة في كل يوم. حيث  كان لي موقد للطهي و الخضار المسلوقة للعشاء. أكلت الطماطم والبصل مع وقليل من الخل والزيت، و حضرت الشاي مع الزنجبيل الطازج، الهيل، والقرنفل. مكثت  في عربة وغسلت نفسي بالماء من دلوين. تعلمت أن اغتسل في وقت متأخر جدا وذلك لأن المرأة الإرترية تصر على سحب الماء من البئر لي. وقد نسجت النساء لي سجادة من العشب و غطاء سرير مليء بالألوان.
كل ليلة كنت أحاول أن أقرأ في حين كان  الأطفال يلعبون  بكل فرح و سرور بالقرب من خيمتي. كانت  الأقرب لي من أي وقت مضى للراحة والسلام. هذا الشعور بالرضا في كثير من الأحيان كان يكسر بواسطة  المرض والعنف والموت.
وبدأت أدرك أن إعجابي بالناس في المخيم كان رد فعل لاحساسهم العميق بالإيمان. 
أنهم شاهدوا فظائع لا يمكن أن اتصورها، وحتى الآن كانت لا تزال الطيبة والرأفة، وكانوا صادقين جداً معي. شاهدت  كيف عاشوا حياتهم، يوما بعد يوم. كيف  تغلبوا على المأساة، كيف أنهم ضحكو على كل شيء  .كانو لا يملكون الكثير ولكنهم سعيدين وكنت أملك أكثر منهم بكثير ولكنني كنت فقير وفارغ (اذا لم يكن لديك الإيمان فأنت فارغ).أني احسد هذه الطمانينه و الهدوء الداخلي الذي يرشد حياتهم.
منذ أن غادرت اليمن، وأنا  اتعامل و اتواصل  مع العديد من المسلمين أينما ذهبت. في مدرسة الدراسات العليا، كنت ادرس طالب سعودي الذي أصبح في نهاية  المطاف مدرب و صديق عظيم . ذكرني بكثير من الآباء المسلمين الذين التقيت بهم والذين كانو محبين ولطفاء مع عائلاتهم. وربما كان ذلك  القصور الخاص بي كأب هو  الذي أصاب تلك الحبال القوية حين تشهد تفاعل  هؤلاء الرجال مع أطفالهم. كان عنده الإحساس العميق  بالايمان "كان شخصيه دينيه جدا " ولكنه لم يكن يتحدث عن ذلك ولا يتباهى بذلك كمعظم رجال الدين.وتبعته إلى لندن، وعملت معه لمدة سنة في مدرسة إسلامية.  كان هادئا,مهنيا و مراعيا جداً. وأنا لم أكن  بتلك المهنية والهدوء.
عندما عدت الى الولايات ،  نهاية المطاف كانت ولاية أوريغون، حيث وجدت نفسي وحيدا الى حد كبير. قضيت ساعات طويلة أفكر في حياتي واحساسي العميق بالتفكك. انا لم اكن انتظر و ابحث عن اجابه .ببساطه عدت الى ذلك المكان حيث شاهدت و شعرت بقدر وافر من الامور التي افتقدتها "الاسلام"
كان لي العديد من الأصدقاء المسلمين في ولاية أوريغون، الذين استمتعت بقضاء الوقت معهم. وكان لي صديقه آخرى في الخارج حيث كان لها تأثير كبير علي. كانت أصغر مني  سنا من بكثير، ولكن كانت متوازنه  وتطبق إيمانها بعاطفة هادئة. أعجبت بها كثيرا، وقدرت صداقتها إلى حد كبير.  وكانت أول شخص اتصلت به عندما دخلت الاسلام. كان هذا القرار سهلا جدا. كان قبل رمضان بقليل قبل ثلاث سنوات، حين كنت في زيارة لمتحف التسامح في لوس أنجليس لجميع الأماكن. أنني أتذكر انني شاهدت امرأة  قدمت كأحد الناجين من محرقة لمناقشة معاداة السامية وغيرها من المسائل. كان العرض مثير للاهتمام، ولكنني كنت مستاء للغاية مع الجزء الأخير منه.حيث قدمت قطعة حول تجارة الرقيق المزعومة في السودان.كنت قد درست هذه المسألة، واعرف أن العديد من الحكومات، والأمم المتحدة، واليونيسيف، والعشرات من الوكالات الدولية الأخرى قد أدانت تقارير المسيحيين في السودان والذي يدعى "الشراء والإفراج عن" العبيد المسلمين.ادركت هذا خلال حديثها حيث تحدثت عن اليهود، والسود والأمريكيين الأصليين، والعديد من  الضحايا الاخرين في الماضي والحاضر. لم يرد ذكر لقطاع غزة أو فلسطين، ولا للاأسوار ضخمة والحواجز الخرسانية التي رأيتها في القدس، العزل واللاإنسانية تجاه المسلمين. بدلاً من ذلك، انتهى عرضها مع بعض المسلمين "تجار الرقيق". لم يكن غضبي على كيفيه  تصوير المسلمين أو إغفال التعصب الإسرائيلي الذي دفعني إلى دخول الاسلام هذا الأسبوع. كان السلام الذي شعرت به في كل مرة عدت الى هذه المخيمات، مع مدربي وأسرته،و صديقي. عرفت أيضا أن الوقت قد حان بالنسبة لي أن "اخضع " إلى إلهي . حيث أنني لم اخضع لاي شي منذ زمن طويل ولم اخضع ل زوج امي في شبابي ولا لأي رجل منذ ذلك الوقت.
حان الوقت بالنسبة لي لفتح قلبي وان اسمح لنفسي بان تغفر،تحب، وتعيش.انا لا اصلي وادعو الله على اكمل وجه ولكنني احاول. أنا أعمل بجد لاعيش إيماني. أنها ليست مجرد مسألة عدم الشرب، التدخين او ان تكون غير اخلاقي. أنها مسألة العيش مثل رجل  لديه قناعة محبة الله في قلبه.امل ان يرى الناس هذا ليس لغروري وانما لإخلاصي.


  1. I am deeply touched...the Muslim community is lucky to have some one like you to join them. The choice to convert to Islam is yet another prove of how great and convincing Islam is. May Allah grant you his blessings, his acceptance, and his paradise. I am so proud of your decision...

  2. Thank you sir! I hope you and your family are having a wonderful time. I wish you an early Eid Saaid

  3. Eid Mubarek! A little late but that's Yemeni! Kul sana wa ant tayeb.

  4. Thanks yahee! Hope all is well with you and in Yemen!

  5. So touchy! Thanks God for that award ! congratulation for that award my brother

  6. Welcome to Islam .Whenever someone thinks deeply about this religion ,he will make sure it's the right religion regardless the false behaviors some Muslims commit

  7. Thank you very much! I had time to think about things, and when I was finally ready to convert (or revert) I felt so good. I have not for one moment regretted my decision, maybe because of all the good Muslims I have met and worked with :)

  8. So, if one asks you to tell the difference, what would you say, Michael??

  9. Thank you Zei! I am not sure what you are asking, the difference between what? :)

  10. By the way, Im zeinab, The Ed. Specialist at UNRWA, Im asking about the difference between your life now after you have converted to Islam and the one you lived before??

  11. :) Thought so, didn't want to use your full name until you did. Well, Michael is still very much Michael (I had to say that because there are too many people who know me that read this blog :), but yes there have been big changes. It is in the little things in my life - I think more about others, I challenge myself constantly about my thoughts and actions and I have made some improvements. But the most important thing is that I now feel a dignity rising inside me that is from my God. I always felt his goodness, now I am allowing myself to understand that I can be good, I can have dignity and grace.

  12. So do u mean in the past you felt God's goodness but could not explain it?? Now you can easily explain what might happen with you either good or bad? Do u find your life become more complicated??

  13. I always knew there was a goodness inside me, didnt know from where though. My life is more and less complicated :) I know what to do now, just stopping those bad old impulses is complicated, as I never tried to resist them before. So yeah, simple in that I know what to do, complicated in that I am still dealing with me.

  14. As i understand, u are living with a conflict inside yourself and i can imagine how hard is it. But do u believe that God will help you overcome this conflict? Do u find yourself dragged to which side?

  15. I thank God that I know understand myself and my weakenesses, and that I am steadily developing the strength to fight them through His grace. I am not dragged per se, my mind and heart are on the right side, just dragging my human pettiness over is the task at hand

  16. Do you feel you are improving in this task??

    How do feel regarding the rituals of Islam? for example, 5 prayers per day, fasting for 30 days, ...burden??? have they become habits??

  17. I am getting better. The rituals are what I need. I need to be stopped throughout my day, reminded who I owe everything to, who i need to help, how I should act. To tell you the truth, fasting is very easy for me, too easy. Praying five times a day, that is a different story but I am working on it :) So, I havent perfected the habits, but my mind is changing which i love

  18. I had no idea that you have adopted Islam. I just figured that you sympathized with the Arab point of view, having experienced the culture first hand due to your many travels. Yours is a familiar story that I've heard before from the very few Anglo-Saxon Americans that I know that have adopted Islam, long before Islam became the villian of choice for us Americans.

    Congratulations on finding your path to inner peace and on your courage to declare your affiliation with a relegion that is often misunderstood and misrepresented.

  19. Thank you so much! I am blessed that my faith found its way into my heart. I take this as high praise from you btw, I really respect your thinking, love your writing :)

  20. Hello Michael
    It's a great opprtunity to join you in the academy. Thanks alot
    Fatima Ramadan

  21. You are welcome! We will all have a great time I am sure of it!

  22. Subhana Allah. I'm very amazed by your story. Islam seeks to purify the souls through the recognition of Allah and his worship and to establish on the basis of love, mercy, brotherhood, equality and justice.
    Mabrook Michael, I'm very happy you found your path and Inchallah you will be a good Muslim.
    It was a privilege meeting you.

    Fatine "Student Aid"

  23. Thank you Fatine, it is so nice to have your here!

  24. Your story is so touchy. It's nice you found the peace of soul you've been looking for.

  25. Greetings Michael. I just want to first thank you for iniviting me to your blog and for availing your story of spiritual/religious conversion to me. It was certainly a question that I was planning to pose to you, at one point or another, but now having had the opportunity to read of it and in turn, digest it, I can hopefully present more substantial questions, and perhaps tie in some personal quandaries of my own, whenever the time allows. In any case, I found the account of your conversion to be quite interesting and more importantly, very genuine. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Peace be unto you.

  26. Thank you Richard, I would love to have that conversation :)

  27. Michael, thank you for sharing and I indeed touched. Joanne