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Odyssey to Islam: Part-II PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr Moustafa Mould   
Saturday, 31 January 2009 18:26

 

I knew I could not stay much longer at the university of Nairobi; they were trying to Africanize it as quickly as possible, and to them I was just another white foreigner. Before I got much older I needed a new job, probably a new career, maybe with the State Department or a non-profit agency. From her point of view the obstacle was simply I was a not a Muslim. I had mistakenly thought that any Muslim could marry one of the People of the Book; she set me straight on that very quickly; men yes, women, no.

She was telling me about Islam, and I'd learned some things from my colleagues and others. I already believed in the One God. The Creator of the universe and all that is in it; I already believed in the Islamic concepts of tawhid and shirk and avoiding belief or trust in anything like astrology or palmistry; I'd long believed that Jesus was one of the prophets. I believed that Muhammad (pbuh) was a prophet and a messenger, and it had long ceased to be relevant to me that Muhammad (pbuh) was not a Jewish prophet.

I'd stopped eating pork; I didn't gamble, I rarely drank anything besides a glass of wine with an occasional gourmet dinner. I was, since my Peace Corps days, already more comfortable with African and Islamic notions of modesty, child rearing, etc. than with the "sexual revolution", and the me-ism and disintegrating families of the 70s and 80s America. There didn't seem to be much to prevent me from becoming a Muslim. I was so close, so what, in 1983, was the problem?

In fact there were two. First, there was the matter of my identity and my heritage. I imagine that it is not so traumatic for a Christian to change from one religion to another. If a German Catholic becomes a Lutheran, or even a Jew or Muslim, he remains a German. I certainly felt like an American first and a Jew second I could never consider myself Russian. But in America, nation of immigrants, even the most acculturated attach some importance to their families national or ethnic origins. Even though I had no desire to deal with Jews as Jews or as a community, I was reluctant to lose that identity.

The second obstacle was my family. Though not orthodox, most were strongly traditional, all pro-Israel, some were avid zionists; many considered Arabs as enemies, and I expected they would also consider Muslims as enemies. I feared they would disown me as crazy, even traitorous. Worst of all, because I still loved them, they would be hurt. First things first: I left that problem up in the air, and when my contract expired I did not renew it, but returned to the States hoping to find another job, preferably back in East Africa.

It was terribly hard. I had no home, no income, not even an interview suit. I invested in a wool suit, three ties and a winter coat - it was my first winter in twenty years. I got books on how to write a resume, a SF171, and stayed with a friend in Washington, trying all the government agencies, consulting firms and PVOs that had anything to do with Africa, until my many ran out. I had to return to Boston and stay with my sister, where I had food and shelter, but it was far from where the jobs might be. In addition, I was going through a severe case of culture shock. So there I was: broke in Reaganomic America, in the winter, in culture shock on top of a mid-life crisis, in love and on anti-depressants.

I can joke now, but the pain and fear were unbearable then. For the first time in my adult life I began to pray. I prayed often and hard. I vowed that, if I could get back to Africa and marry my beloved, I would declare my submission to Allah and become a Muslim

I got a really awful temporary job in a warehouse that at least paid for food, bus fares and dry cleaning, then a better, but embarrassing one as a receptionist in the counseling office at a local college. I could see that the four yuppie psychologists figured me for some 42-year-old loser, and I pretty much agreed with them. Out of embarrassment I didn't tell anything about myself, but when the phone wasn't ringing off the hook with students panicking over mid-terms, I was reading job notices and typing applications letters. I found that a government agency was hiring ESL teachers for Egypt close enough and I applied immediately. A week later another agency I'd applied to six months earlier invited me to D.C. for interviews.

As soon as I got to Washington I called about the ESL jobs to see if I could get an interview, "as long as I'm in Town." The jobs were already filled! Can I meet you anyway, in case something comes up later? OK, four o'clock? Great. She apologized my resume had been misplaced and would definitely keep me in mind. Thank you , delighted to meet you. As I was leaving, she said hesitantly, "By the way, there is one position opening soon, but it's in Somalia."

"Somalia!" I nearly shouted, "That's wonderful!"

"Is it?" she asked incredulously.

"Sure, I'd love to go there. I'm already familiar with the culture and the religion," I said aloud, but thinking to myself how it's only an hour from Mogadishu to Nairobi, and how maybe I'd get to meet my future family in-laws. I told her my references, all of whom she knew personally. She would call them, and as far as she was concerned if I wanted the job I could probably have it.

I finished up my interviews at the other agency. They even showed me the cubicle in windowless office where I would probably be working, and I returned to Boston, elated. I might even have a choice, praise God. But what a choice it was: a one year renewable contract at a hot, dusty but African hardship post on the Indian Ocean, or a career civil service job with a pension plan in a windowless office in northern Virginia.

Two weeks later, she called to offer me the job of English program director in Mogadishu, would I take it, I had 48 hours to think it over. Everyone said it was a no-brainer; I should take the career job with pension in Washington, otherwise I'd be back to square one in a year or two. I argued that I was an Africanist, the experience would help me and I'd make good contacts. I accepted the job and starting getting my shots. A couple of weeks later the other agency sent me a brief note, no explanation, informing me I did not get the windowless job.

Alhamdulillah, Allahu alim. I could so easily have ended up with neither, but Allah had guided me to the right decision. I was employed. I was a person. I might even getting married. I gave my notice at the college, and on the last day I typed a letter to the psychologists informing them that I was leaving to take up a position as a project direct at the United States Embassy in Somalia, signed M. Mould, Ph.D.

Of course I "had to" stop off in Nairobi for a few days on my way to Mogadishu. We had a tearful reunion and tried to make some future plans. I'd been hired as a single man, no chance of benefits or housing for a family, and I had no idea what Somalia or my job would be like or how long I would be there. For the time being, I'd remain a single man in Nairobi. Maybe I could visit often, and there was always the phone. Maybe she could come and visit her family, whom she hadn't seen since childhood.

The job was interesting, a little teaching, but mostly administration and management, and dealing with embassy officials. Most of my own students were senior government officials and a few of them became good friends. Outside of work was a whole different story. The culture and atmosphere in urban Somalia is more Middle Eastern than African. During my seven years in Uganda and Kenya I knew the languages, people were open and friendly, and I never had trouble adjusting or getting around; I'd always felt completely at home. Mogadishu gave me culture shock. I didn't know the language, no one knew Swahili, educated Somalis knew Italian, not English. All the signs were in Somali. The worst thing was communications. Home phones were overcrowded, sweltering post office. Only telegraph service was usually efficient. The mail was totally unreliable except for the diplomatic pouch. It was impossible to contact Nairobi.

Don't get me wrong. I was quite happy there, enjoying the sights and smells, the Italian and Somali food, my views of the ocean, which was within walking distance of my house and my office, discovering a new culture. I was living downtown, in one of the older sections, behind the Italian embassy, and I was awakened early morning by a beautiful adhan from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque. We worked a Muslim schedule: Sunday - Thursday, 7 - 3. On Fridays I would walk around and often found myself outside a little mosque behind the American Embassy, and while myrrh and frankincense drifted from the doorways in the alleys I would stop and listen to the sounds of Jumuah.

The first thing I noticed was the murmuring of many voices as men read from the Qur'an while waiting for the imam to give the khutbah. I was instantly transported back in my mind to my old synagogue and the identical susurrus of old men reading from the Psalms (Zabur) at the start of morning prayers. It gave me a comfortable and comforting feeling of nostalgia. A little while later, walking back the other way, I would hear the imam reciting a surah. It sounded much like the Torah readings I'd enjoyed on Saturday mornings, again comforting and nostalgic. Not that it made me want to return to any synagogue; rather, it made Islam feel more comfortable and familiar to me.

I'm a linguist, and had been a specialist in field research. I found a book on beginning Italian and, there being no grammar in English on Somali, I hired myself a tutor, who was a better friend than a teacher. I quickly learned the greetings, common nouns, and verbs, kinship terms, numbers and telling time. Some of the vocabulary, borrowed from Arabic, was just like Swahili and Hebrew. Somali is also very distantly related to Semitic languages. The grammar was something else, though, really hard to figure out, and as I got busier and more tired at work, our lessons turned more to conversations about culture, politics and religion. He was knowledgeable enough to distinguish between genuine Islam and some prevalent aspects of indigenous, pre-Islamic culture and superstition that had bothered me.

Before long, he offered to bring a shaikh to my home so that I could make the shahada. Despite my vow I still felt hesitation, thinking of my family. But they were ten thousand miles away, my fiancee a few hundred, and I was living in, being touched by and feeling comfortable with this Muslim society. I had good friends and colleagues, and it was clear to me that much of their goodness was due to Islam. I asked him to bring the shaikh and he did. He questioned me about my beliefs, and I told him I'd been a Jew, not a Christian (no problems with the trinity), and that I'd long ago given up pork, alcohol, gambling and zina, and after he was convinced that I understood what I was about to say and knew the five pillars, I declared the shahadah. My fiancee had suggested the name Mustafa, which I liked very much.

After all the hesitation and procrastination I felt enormous relief, and a restored sense of belonging that I'd missed more than I'd realized. All my Somali friends were of course delighted and very supportive. They began calling me seedi (brother-in-law). As soon as I could get away I bought some gold jewelery and flew to Nairobi. To get married I had to go to the office of the chief qadi and declare the shahadah again, with witnesses, in order to get an official certificate of conversion, there being no such thing in Somalia.

We went to the qadi and made our nikah[editor's note: nikah means marriage]. A couple of days later I had to fly back to Mogadishu and my work. Less than a year later, at 43, I was overjoyed and blessed by Allah to become the father of a wonderful Muslim baby boy. I flew to Nairobi, and after a brief discussion we agreed on my wife's suggestion for a name. Now I even had a kunya (nick name); I was Abu Khalid, and he was named after the great Companion, Khalid Ibn Al-Walid.

You are probably wondering if I told my family about my converting to Islam, and the answer is, not for quite some time. Of course I told my family about my marriage and they were neither surprised or upset.

I was a middle-aged man who ought to know what he was doing, and they were mainly happy for the sake of my happiness. When Khalid was born they were positively delighted and were most eager to meet him and his mother. When Khalid was a little over a year old, I went to Boston on my vacation and brought my wife and son with me. The two boys, Ali and Yusuf, were away at a Muslim boarding school in north-eastern Kenya.

The reception was as warm and loving as anyone could wish for and we had a great visit. There's no question that a baby, especially a grandson, has a most salutary and beneficial effect on people. My wife had brought little gifts for my mother, sister and aunts, and they all had little gifts for her. I suppose they all assumed, as I had once done, that Muslim can marry a Jew or Christian. They knew my wife and our sons were Muslims, that Khalid was being raised as a Muslim, and they had no problem with that. They knew I hadn't been a practicing Jew for nearly thirty years, and I'd married a non-Jew before. I'd decided that if they asked I wouldn't lie, and if they didn't I'd just wait for a more opportune time some other time. A few years ago they finally asked me and I told them. I cannot say they were pleased, but neither were they surprised, angry or cold to me, and we still have warm, loving relationships.

Another year, another contract went by, and then I lost my job. Like the new Pharaoh "who knew not Joseph", a new director came, who saw no value in the English programs and decided to end them. I kind of saw it coming and had applied for a similar job in Yemen, so I didn't fight it very hard, but in the end the job in San`a fell through, and, as my family had predicted, I was back to square one- well, not quite.

In 1988, leaving my family in Nairobi, I returned to the States alone and jobless. It was again vary tough (winter, too), but this time I had some savings, new skills and a stronger resume, I knew better how to job-hunt; I knew my way around Washington and had a few contacts. I still had the suit. Best of all, I had my faith instead of anti-depressants. I quickly got a couple of part-time teaching jobs and a job in a men's store. The teaching jobs dried up, so I sold suits full-time for over three years, always looking for a better job, but finally it took two years I managed to bring my family over and we did our best, trusting in Allah.

Then, four years ago, a Muslim neighbor told us about a new Islamic institute that had recently opened, where they were looking for an English teacher. I immediately called, made an appointment and met the director. By the grace of Allah I was hired to teach some of the staff and do some editorial work. Ironically, I am now in a cubicle in a windowless office in northern Virginia, but what a difference! I am in an Islamic environment, surrounded and inspired by good Muslim brothers, many of them excellent scholars and all of whom I love and respect very much, and whom I learn from daily. And what is my job? To read books on Islam, to edit manuscripts on Islam, to write about what I read. In essence, I am being paid to study Qur'an, Hadith, `aqidah, Fiqh, Sirah, Islamic history and Arabic. I thank and praise Allah every day for leading me to Islam and for showering me with all these blessings. Alhamdulillah, ash-shukrulillahi Rabbil-alamin.

 


        <<< Part 1

This story, by Dr Moustafa Mould, first appeared on www.jews-for-allah.org.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 March 2010 19:41