In the upper reaches of the Zagros Mountains, the air changed. The high altitude opened it, cleared it of the dust of the valleys, and made it sing a little in the lungs; low atmospheric pressure. It was a shift I recognized. We had been driving for hours, winding north along a wide dry basin between high peaks; then we turned west. Now the car, an old Peugot, struggled upward along switchbacks cut into the mountainside, past intersecting layers of rock laid down over geological ages.
For a moment I was reminded intensely of home. It had been almost a year since I had been back to Boulder, in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. The snug valley where I had gone to high school, learned to drive, where my parents and sister still lived, could be seen as a tidy whole from this height in cliffs much like these. Looking down into the plain below, I felt as though I was seeing double, and that an hour’s hike along the switchbacks would bring me to my own doorstep.
At the time, it was a sensation that seemed a little perverse. I had just flown into Iran from Egypt—this journey had begun thousands of miles from my own country. That a mountain and a change in the air in Iran should make me think of home in the spring of 2004, the spring of the War on Terror, the clash of civilizations, the jihad, the things that had made my quiet life almost unlivable, must be sheer perversity, I thought then. I didn’t yet realize that the Zagros Mountains had no name when they were forced out of the ground millions of years ago, and neither did the Rockies, that the call of earth to earth might be something more real than the human divisions of Iran and America. I had faith, then; it was in the mountains that I first thought of divinity, and these mountains reminded me of that sensation. But I didn’t yet have faith in faith—I didn’t trust the connections I felt between mountains or memories, and if I had been a little more ambivalent, I could have allowed the Zagros to be foreign, and the memory to be coincidence.
Fortunately, I didn’t.
Ahmad, my guide plus chaperone, pointed west over the receding peaks.
“If you kept driving that way, you would get to Iraq,” he said. He was from Shiraz, and had silver hair and laugh lines. Before the revolution he flew planes for the Shah, whom he had hated, but not as much as he now hated the mullahs. During one of our conversations on the road from Shiraz to Isfahan, he told me he used to fast during Ramadan and pray with some regularity. In his eyes, though, the Islamic regime had so deformed his religion that he stopped. Thinking I would judge him for this lapse lest he provide a rationale (I was an American and a Sunni, and therefore unpredictable) he told me he didn’t need to fast; fasting was meant to remind one of the hunger of the poor, and he helped the poor in other ways.
“Then why do the poor fast?” I asked him. The Ramadan fast was required of all Muslims, not just the wealthy. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye; evidently I was an American Sunni who discussed theology. Among the middle classes, theology had gone out of fashion in Iran. But I had just come from Egypt, where the reverse was true. Ahmad left the question floating in the air.
“Iraq?” I climbed on a rock near the edge of the promontory where we were standing, having parked the car on the shoulder of the road. My Nikes stuck out from under the hem of my black robe. I had overdressed. In Khatami’s Tehran, chadors and manteaux had been replaced by short, tight housecoats and scarves that were barely larger than handkerchiefs. Knowing only that Iran was under a religious dictatorship, and Egypt was under a military one, I had dressed as conservatively as possible. I didn’t realize that whatever the political reality, Egypt was far more socially conservative than Iran. The reasons for this would become clear to me only later: when a dictatorship claims absolute authority over an idea—in the case of Iran, Islam, in the case of Egypt, a ham-fisted brand of socialism—frustrated citizens will run to the opposite ideological extreme. The Islamic Republic was secularizing Iran; in Egypt the short-robed fundamentalists multiplied and multiplied.
“Yes, Iraq. I think at night farther southwest you could maybe see the bombs falling. But far away; first the plain of Karbala, then Baghdad.” Ahmad came to stand next to my rock, and pointed northwest. “Karbala is where Imam Husayn is buried.”
“We have his head,” I said, thinking of the fasting argument. “In Cairo. There’s a square named after him where the shrine is.”
“His head,” I repeated, wondering whether I should put an honorific before his; Husayn ibn Ali was a grandson of the Prophet and beloved by all Muslims, but particularly revered by Shiites. I didn’t want to commit a faux pas. No matter what Ahmad thought about fasting. I put one hand to my back; the infection in my kidneys had manifested itself as a dull spreading pain there, and a touch of fever. Living in an industrial neighborhood in Cairo, not a clean city to begin with, I had developed an unfortunate apathy toward my health.
“This is the first time I hear this about Imam Husayn,” muttered Ahmad, and broke out into a laugh.
“It’s true,” I said. “The Fatimids brought him with them. At least, that’s what the ulema tell us; maybe it’s all a lie and the shrine is empty.” A light wind ran down the channel of the valley below. I took a breath and held it for a moment, then let it out in a sigh. Ahmad smiled a little.
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s beautiful up here.”
Later, in the car, Ahmad told me, “I think you are becoming a little bit Arab.” He said so gently, but this is not a compliment in Persia. On some level, I agreed with him—I was so submerged in Cairo, so cut off from America, that something was bound to change. Yet I still felt like myself. I was disturbed because I had been told I should be disturbed; that the Arab way of doing things, being opposed to the American way of doing things, represented the betrayal of an American self. But I had discovered that I was not my habits. I was not the way I dressed or the things I did and didn’t say. If I were all these things, then standing on that rock and looking west, I should have been someone else.
But I remained.
When the term “clash of civilizations” was coined, it was a myth; the interdependence of world cultures lay on the surface, supported by trade and the travel of ideas, the borrowing of words from language to language. But like so many ugly ideas, the clash becomes a little more real every time someone says the word. Today, it is a theory supported not only in the West, where it was invented, but also in the Muslim world, where plenty of people see Islam as irrevocably in conflict with western values. When threatened, both Muslims and westerners tend to toe their respective party lines, defending monolithic ideals that only exist as tools of opposition, ideals that crumble as soon as the opposing party has turned its back. The truth emerges. It is not through politics that we will be delivered from this conflict. It is not through pundits and analysts and experts. The war between Islam and the West is a human conflict, in which human experience is the only reliable guide. We are all standing on the mountaintop, and we must learn to look out at the world not through the medium of self-appointed authorities, but with our own eyes.
We say unto it: Be! And it is.
In a way, I was in the market for a philosophy. Five months into my sophomore year of college at Boston University I was hospitalized, in the middle of the night, for a rare and acute reaction to a Depo Provera injection I’d received several days earlier. Up until then I’d been lucky enough never to see the inside of an emergency room. The most dangerous things I’d ever done were take the Chinatown-to-Chinatown bus from Boston to New York, walk home alone late at night once or twice, and get my lower lip pierced at a dimly lit shop in some basement off Commonwealth Avenue. At the turn of the millennium, even rebellion was fairly sanitary. Landing in the hospital because of legal medication seemed like a violation of the way things were supposed to work.
For days I was in and out of doctors’ offices with the mostly untreatable symptoms of adrenal distress: heart palpitations, sudden attacks of sweating and dizziness, and insomnia so severe that no amount of tranquilizer could keep me asleep for more than four or five hours. In a blow to my vanity, I was losing hair. Later I would learn that I was also losing bone mass. At seventeen I was immortal; at eighteen I was a short and arbitrary series of events.
I wasn’t very good with pain. And having always been the kind of person who could catnap at will, I wasn’t very good with sleep deprivation, either. By chance, the three people who watched over me most diligently during the first days of my illness—a classmate, his mother, and a nurse—were all Iranian. Semidelirious, I took this as a sign. Addressing a God I had never spoken to in my life, I promised that if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim.
As it happened, the adrenal distress lasted a year and a half.
It was this unanswered prayer that sparked my interest in organized religion. I had been raised an atheist but was never very good at it. As a child I had precognitive dreams about mundane events like the deaths of pets, and I could not remember a time when I was not in love with whatever sat behind the world. Yet God was taboo in my parents’ house; we were educated, and educated people don’t believe in nonsense. Both of my parents came from conservative Protestant families. They left their churches during the Vietnam era, sick of the racist warmongering peddled from the pulpits. To them, God was a bigoted, vengeful white man. Refusing to believe in him was not just scientifically correct, it was morally imperative.
I learned to hide, deny, or dress up all experiences I could not explain. In high school a fatuous brand of neo-paganism was popular, thanks to movies like The Craft; this gave my heretical impulses a temporary outlet. By the time I was in my late teens I had adopted the anemic mantra “spiritual but not religious.” I couldn’t have told you what it meant.
Three days turned into three weeks. Doctors told me to sit tight—the Depo injection was effective for three months, and it might take another several months after that for my body to rebalance itself. I tired easily. Assignments that once took a few hours to complete now took days; walking from campus to my dorm left me exhausted. Twilight began to look bleak, the precursor of dark empty hours without sleep. Being eighteen and fortunate, it was a struggle to realize that this was not the end of everything. And, in fact, it wasn’t. Since the big things were enough trouble, I began to let the small things slide. I went out without makeup. I stopped going to all the parties I didn’t really care about. An alchemical process was taking place that I didn’t quite understand. By small increments, my sense of humor and ability to cope were coming back, along with a new interest in the God who had not answered my prayers.
“I guess the Almighty doesn’t bargain,” I said one day to Elizabeth, who lived down the hall. We were on our way to Eli Wiesel’s annual lecture on the Book of Job, about which we had to write a paper.
“Not with miserable sinners,” she said cheerfully. She was Episcopalian.
“There is such a thing as respect, you know.” Javad, whose steady supply of dining hall cookies and sympathy helped prompt my brush with Islam, appeared behind us with some other students from our section. “Even if God is only a hypothetical to you.” He was a serious person, and smoked Djarum Blacks; he was not amused by my attitude toward the whole thing.
“I’m being respectful,” I said. “I was serious. Hypothetically serious.”
“So you feel like hypothetical God abandoned you?” He raised one eyebrow.
“No, I don’t. But I’m having trouble understanding why that is.”
“Of course you don’t. You can’t feel abandoned by a God you don’t believe in,” Elizabeth pointed out. I shook my head.
“I’m not sure it’s that simple.”
We found seats in the middle of the lecture hall just as Dr. Wiesel was being introduced. Since we were humanities students, the idea of listening to a lecture on Job was not all that terrifying. We had already faced Confucius, the Stoics, and the Bhagavad Gita and come through relatively unscathed. But as Dr. Wiesel talked about the role of suffering in God’s covenant with the Jews, I began to feel uncomfortable.
“I don’t think that’s what it means,” I muttered.
“What?” Elizabeth frowned at me.
“Job. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I think it’s about—”
Someone several rows back made a shushing noise.
“I think it’s about monotheism,” I said, “the idea that faith in the God of mercy is also faith in the God of destruction. God causes Job’s suffering, not the devil.”
The shushing became more insistent. I slumped in my seat, dissatisfied.
When I made my desperate offer to trade faith for health, I had not read a word of the Quran. My otherwise exhaustive liberal education skipped right over it. The professors I queried said teaching the Quran as a work of literature angered Muslim students and put everybody at risk. I was skeptical of this answer. When we studied the Bible, it was as a work of holy literature, and there was a level of respect and suspension of disbelief in our discussions. If the Quran was afforded the same treatment, I had trouble believing Muslim students would be so ominously displeased. The few that I knew—Javad and one or two others—seemed benign enough. Through them, I had picked up some stray facts: I knew there were two major sects of Islam, and I knew not all Muslims were Arabs. But I knew almost nothing about what they believed, and even with a $30,000-a-year education, I had no idea Islam was the world’s second-largest religion.
I began to investigate Islam on my own, and tried to understand the relationship of the three Abrahamic traditions. The beliefs of my religious friends, once a source of silent pity, were now fascinating: I wanted to know about the Trinity and the Eucharist and the Jewish concept of the afterlife. I discovered opinions I did not know I held.
“If there is one omniscient omnipotent God, why send a holy spirit to impregnate Mary? Why the extra step? Couldn’t He just cause her to become spontaneously pregnant? Isn’t that what omnipotence is? Why do people always point up when they talk about Heaven? If heaven is up there, where is it in China? Down? Where is it on the moon? How could there be such a thing as inherited sin? Isn’t that a fundamentally unjust idea?” I was persistent, maybe even rude, and my questions were often met with ruffled silence. These are questions atheists often use to dismantle religion, but to me, they were urgent attempts to name what I was finding harder and harder to ignore.
I had been taught that it was weak minded to believe the world was created by an invisible man with superpowers. But what if God was not an invisible man with superpowers? Atheism had never taught me how to answer that question. It had only taught me to reject primitive little-g gods; anthropomorphized, local entities subject to the laws of time and space—it had taught me, in other words, to reject Zeus and the Keebler elves. And the God to whom I had prayed so desperately was not Zeus.
When I prayed, maybe I was trying to justify a belief I already held. Being ill had shaken something loose in my head. Sitting up at night under dark windows, my perceptions had altered. My body was no longer an infinite resource but a union of thousands of fragile things, chemicals and precursors and proteins, all in a balance that could easily be upset. That so many people were well—that I had been well for so long—seemed miraculous.
Illnesses usually bring people to religion through the front door; mine brought me through the back. I did not need to know if I was being punished or tested. Neither my health nor my illness was about me. The force that played havoc with the cortisol in my blood was the same force that helped my body recover; if I felt better one day and worse the next, it was unchanged. It chose no side. It gave the girl next to me in the hospital pneumonia; it also gave her white blood cells that would resist the infection. And the atoms in those cells, and the nuclei in those atoms, the same bits of carbon that were being spun into new planets in some corner of space without a name. My insignificance had become unspeakably beautiful to me.
That unified force was a God too massive, too inhuman, to resist with the atheism in which I had been brought up. I became a zealot without a religion. It was unclear to me whether there was a philosophy big enough for monotheism so adamant. It had to be a faith that didn’t need to struggle to explain why bad things happen to good people, a faith in which it was understood that destruction is implicit in creation. I had a faint attraction to Buddhism, but Buddhism was not theist enough; the role of God was obscure or absent. I would have liked to be a Christian. My life would have been much easier if I could stomach the Trinity and inherited sin, or the idea that God had a son. Judaism was a near perfect fit, but it was created for a single tribe of people. Most practicing Jews I knew took a dim view of conversion. To them, membership in the historical community of Jews was as important as belief.
In Islam, which encouraged conversion, there were words for what I believed. Tawhid, the absolute unity of God. Al Haq, the truth so true it had no corresponding opposite, truth that encompassed both good and evil. There were no intermediary steps in the act of creation, God simply said, Kun, fa yakun. “Be, so it is.” I began to have a feeling of deja vu. It was as if my promise to become a Muslim was not a coincidence but a kind of inversion; a future self speaking through a former self.
It was a feeling that intensified as I stood in front of a vending machine in my Warren Towers dorm in the spring of my illness, on the verge of an epiphany. Another girl in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms stood in front of me with a deflated expression.
“Screw this,” she said, punching the glass that divided her from the Almond Joy stuck inside, dangling by its wrapper. She sighed and turned away, muttering “Good luck,” as she passed. Her T-shirt read, “Why does it always rain on me?” Apparently she had dressed for this moment of synchronicity.
I punched in the code for a Snickers. As it fell, it hit the trapped Almond Joy. When I pushed in the flap at the bottom of the machine I saw two candy bars, side by side. I looked around for the other girl, but she was gone.
“Kun,” I said to no one, and laughed. “Kun fa yakun.”
At that moment, the girl with the synchronous T-shirt was more upset about losing her candy bar than I was about having osteopenia, low bone mineral density. The moral microcosm of Warren Towers seemed profoundly balanced. What I had suffered was so slight compared to so many people; how appropriate that all I got for it was an Almond Joy.
I had just read a verse of the Quran about rizq, which translates as “sustenance,” but has threads of destiny and fortune running through it. “Oh you who believe, partake of the good things We have provided for you as sustenance, and give thanks to God, if it is truly Him that you worship.” With an infinitesimal shift in probability, an invisible wink, a little rizq had been redistributed. The world seemed without contradiction. It was called into being, kun, with pain and synchronicity and malfunctioning vending machines already written on it. I was abandoning my ability to distinguish between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic.
At home in Colorado that summer, I got a new tattoo. An artist named Fish inked Al Haq across my lower back in Arabic calligraphy, talking to me as he worked to keep my mind off the pain. I had signed up to take Arabic in the fall; in the interim I taught myself part of the alphabet out of an old textbook, to make sure I knew what I was putting on my body. Al Haq joined another tattoo designed by a kabbalist from Rhode Island, who gave me my first ink at seventeen after I showed him a fake ID. He had told me that nobody gets two tattoos—they either get one or they get lots. I would get two more before I quit, making the first in a series of difficult negotiations between art and religious law. As it is in Judaism, tattooing is frowned upon in mainstream Islam. The body is God’s creation, and therefore perfect; any medically unnecessary alteration is seen as an affront. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I decided to get this tattoo, because I’m not sure it would have stopped me.
Al Haq was a note to myself that I could not erase. As I got healthier, it would be easy to forget this part of my life, to go back to thinking the world contained only me and whatever I wanted at any given moment. Now I had a permanent physical reminder. One day I would work up the courage to convert. I wasn’t ready yet—I still had chemical and social crutches, and it would take time to learn to live without them. When they were gone, though, I knew what I had to be.