By Marcia Lee
Many young American women spend the months and years following their college graduations considering grad school, establishing themselves in the working world, struggling with new found independence and responsibilities. All this soul searching accumulating into the ultimate contemplation of what the rest of their lives will look like – G. Willow Wilson was no exception. However, Willow found herself on the other side of the world when seeking the answers to some of life’s hardest questions. Inevitably, geography, faith and culture greatly impacted the conclusions she came to.
Willow opens her memoir when she is studying Islamic faith, culture and the Arabic language at Boston University. During this same time she falls quite ill and, although raised atheist, prays during late nights of restlessness to a god she was always told did not exist. It was during one of these sleepless nights that Willow promised God if he would bring healing upon her body she would convert to Islam. Flash forward a year or two, after graduation Willow moves to teach at a school in Cairo, Egypt. The story continues with her experiences as an American woman living in Egypt in a post 9/11 world. Emerging from the plot is a beautiful love story between her and her husband, Omar, a Muslim and Egyptian man – the beauty and the tragedy of their vast differences yet devotion to one another is captured within the glimpses of life together, which she writes about.
Willow chronicles her conversion to becoming Muslim and what it felt like to be torn between two worlds, her family, friends and home back in the United States all too often conflicting with her new life and identity in Egypt. She writes about feeling as if it would make life easier to be able to choose one culture and world over the other. At times it seems the world is not ready for her two lives to co-exist, her homes both dealing in different ways with the events of 9/11. As a journalist and newly converted Muslim, Willow made attempts to bridge the gap between her two worlds, however quickly found neither was fully prepared for this. The memoir closes as Omar and Willow plan to move to the US. It is during the weeks leading up to their departure which Willow feels the deepest connection to the city of Cairo, her family there and Islam yet– becoming overjoyed at what the city provided her during her stay, a new identity.
Although I grew up in a somewhat conservative Methodist home and continue to search for my own understanding of the world, I found this story to be one that had me nodding along, agreeing with so much Willow felt throughout her years of self-exploration and transition into adulthood. It is a coming of age story for a young woman in a world that does not always allow you to have everything you want, sometimes we must choose between worlds, cultures and relationships. That being said, Willow navigated a much different path, immersing herself in a foreign country and culture. Her new culture is one in which she will never fully feel accepted, however it was in the Islamic faith which she found truth for her life path, many seek this and never feel as profoundly connected to or guided by faith – so this was not easily given up. The trials she faced, although from a very different perspective than her peers in the US, are still relatable in terms of finding your own way in this world, building new relationships and making tough decisions as we reach an age of independence.
Willow’s story is beautifully written throughout the pages of The Butterfly Mosque, allowing the reader to see into a world we may not otherwise attempt to understand. Her and Omar’s love story leaves a feeling of hope, that love can conquer much more than most of us believe. Perhaps we will see a world where people attempt to understand and respect each other, without passing judgment based on appearance or our prejudices.