G. Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque: A Young Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam (Grove/Atlantic), which is just out this month, has everything that’s great about memoir. There’s gorgeous writing, a voice that’s both warm and perspicacious and a story of a faraway place that offers insights about its culture and predominant religion. Not insignificantly, there’s also a love story.
Wilson moved to Egypt after college, ostensibly for a job at an English-language school. What she hadn’t told anyone then was that she also planned to become a Muslim. Raised to be smart and curious by atheist upper-middle-class parents in Boulder, Colorado, she’d enrolled in an Islamic studies class at Boston College. She became absorbed in the Qur’an and the comfort it offered her during a fragile time—both personally, with a debilitating illness caused by a reaction from a birth control injection, and internationally, in those first post-9/11 months.
In college she’d had Al Haq, an Arabic word for truth, tattooed on her lower back, a move that would later underscore her straddle between the West and the Middle East, between her secular and Muslim worlds.
In Egypt, she falls for a friend of a friend, a Egyptian man who is intellectual and religiously conservative. But those are labels that don’t do justice to the complexities of Omar or of the world that Wilson inhabits. As the two become engaged, Wilson becomes a part of his family and finds a surprising amount of satisfaction and joy in learning to be a wife, an Egyptian and a Muslim all at once. As Wilson’s devotion to her new religion deepens, she finds it difficult to describe it to American friends and family. “I couldn’t explain what it was to kneel to the inexplicable and feel not debased but elevated, in more complete possession of myself than I had ever been.”
Wilson also becomes a journalist, and she’s a good one, both because she’s naturally curious and because her Muslim status gives her entree to a world that’s inaccessible to most Western journalists.
Her life in Cairo is not without frustration and confusion and it’s here that we get the great tension of the memoir: Will she stay in Egypt or return to the United States? Will she and Omar make it?
This is the journalism I love best, told through a personal story but elevated from the land of Myopia by smart and thoughtful observations and reporting. There’s also the kind of cultural understanding you get when an outsider plants herself in another world, becomes a part of it and translates it. For those who don’t read memoir because it’s too myopic and navel-gazy, read this!
Wilson now splits her time between Cairo and Seattle. She is also know for her graphic novel, Cairo, and the comic series Air and Vixen.
She will read at Elliott Bay Book Company June 15 at 7pm.