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An odyssey is a long, wandering journey. The word comes from Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses) a hero of the Homeric epic poem, The Odyssey. His journey home took ten years and was fraught with many mishaps, detours, dangers and adventures. In retrospect, my road to Islam- my journey home- seems like an odyssey. As I look back over my life, from my early childhood up until I finally made shahadah, a journey of almost 40 years, it seems that there were many signs, many turning points, many incidents, some significant, some trivial, that were all preparing me for and pointing the way to Islam.

I grew up in Boston. It was very much a Catholic city, mostly Irish and Italian, with small but significant communities of blacks, Jews, Chinese, Greeks, Armenians and Christians Arabs, and in those days especially, each group had its own neighborhood. There were lots of Greek and Syrian restaurants, and I grew up loving Greek salad, shish kebob, lahm mishwi, kibbi, grape leaves, humus, anything with lamb, etc.

My family were mostly working-class, conservative Jews. My grandparents had fled the anti-Semitism and pogroms of czarist Russia around 1903. They and their families had found work in the sweatshops of the garment district, a few were in craft skills, and they were quite active in their labour unions. I was to become the first in my family to get a university degree. Our home was not strictly kosher, but we would never dream of eating pork. All the holidays and fasts were observed, and for years I went to the synagogue every Saturday and holiday with my father and uncle.

The synagogue we belonged to was conservative, close to orthodox but modernist: it was very traditional, but women were not totally segregated. I began “Madrasah” (Hebrew school) at age six. It was 1948, which saw the birth of the state of Israel, and Zionist propaganda filled the atmosphere, as did conversations and sermons about the Nazis and concentration camps, and there were many recent immigrant refugee survivors

At that time there was still a lot of anti-Semitism in the U.S., especially in the South and the Midwest, but also in Boston. The Greeks, Syrians and Italians were fine, but the Boston Irish were a big problem, dating back to my parents’ generation in WWI and the 1920s. During my childhood I was often chased, spat on, insulted and beaten. They even held me down and pulled my pants down in addition to the humiliation they wanted to see what a circumcision looked like.

My Hebrew teachers were two Israeli brothers, who were orthodox, and veterans of the 1948 war. From them I learned modern Hebrew and absorbed a lot of Zionist ideology along with the religious teachings. I became more religious and an avid Zionist. I believed that Jews needed their own country in case of another Hitler those Irish kids were doing nothing to allay my fears and I did not feel “at home” in America. I decided I would go and spend my life on a kibbutz (communal farm).

My father was a musician and a cantor (prayer leader). He had a beautiful tenor voice, preferred the more traditional, rather oriental, melodies, and chanted the prayers with lots of huzn (sorrow) (when I learned that word recently I began to wonder if it might be related to Hebrew hazan = cantor. In our synagogue, the Torah reader used a very oriental sounding tajwid which I loved listening to. Believe it or not, I recently heard a friend reciting from the Qur’an and it sounded almost identical.

One thing that stands out clearly in my memory, even now during salah, is that in the Jewish prayers there are regular references to prostration (sujud). In fact, it is a custom in the more orthodox synagogues that during Yom Kippur, the holiest fast day and the equivalent of ‘Ashurah’, the cantor, on behalf of the congregation, actually makes sujud, while still chanting. This is no mean feat, and my father, with his powerful voice, did it extremely well. I remember thinking then that it would be really nice if we all actually did prostrate, instead of just bowing as a symbolic sujud.

Around the age of eight or nine, I chanced to discover a radio station that broadcast programs of the local ethnic communities. I began to listen to the Yiddish, Greek and Armenian ones, and especially to the Arabic Hour. I fell in love with the music and the sound of the language. Using the Hebrew I knew, I tried to understand the news and figure out the sound correspondences; I noticed the differences between hamzah and ‘ayn, kh and h, k and q, distinctions which modern Hebrew has lost. This greatly improved my Hebrew spelling and I won prizes in Hebrew class. I also remember helping my friends cheat during spelling tests by repeating the words under my breath in an “Arabic” accent.

By High School, I had discovered the Boston Public Library and its record section: besides classical, I discovered ethnic folk music from all over the world, but I especially gravitated to the Middle Eastern: Arabic, Turkish, Persian, then Indian-Pakistani. I learned to identify various regional styles, instruments and rhythms. I most loved the oud, and I taught myself to play the dumbeg and accompany the recordings. Once, a group of Yemeni Jews came to Boston from Israel to perform folk songs and dances. I was fascinated by their appearance, costumes and music. They even pronounced Hebrew like me during a spelling test.

I mention all these little things because there is an undeniable cultural component to Islam: the language, the melodies of adhan and Qur’an, social interactions and other features, which are really quite exotic and strange to the average Westerner, including westernized Jews, but which, by the time I encountered them years later in a different context, were already very familiar and pleasant to me, even to the point of nostalgia, and which helped make Islam easier for me to accept and follow. More on that later.

My best friend in high school was also a strong influence on me. He read a lot of philosophy, poetry and religious literature. I didn’t care much for the first two, but I did read some of the religious writings, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and the Qur’an. I noticed that its stories were quite similar to the Bible stories, but I felt it was anti-Jewish. I was quite impressed, though, by its depiction of Jesus as a prophet, not just a rabbi. I accepted that, and that became my answer to my Catholic classmates when they would ask me what I believed about Jesus. They seemed not too displeased by that.

I also attended an advanced “Madrasah”, studying Jewish history, Hebrew, Torah, and added Aramaic and Talmud (Jewish fiqh); the languages, though were still my chief interest. Also around that time, age fifteen, I lost my faith, my belief in God. Earlier, I’d concluded that if God commands us to do certain things, how can I not do them; so I tried to be more orthodox. Then, one day I found myself saying, if God says to do all this I must; but what if there is no God? Do I believe in God? I really don’t know, maybe not, I guess not. And if God doesn’t exist, I don’t need to be doing all this stuff. And I stopped. You can well imagine how upset my father was.

Many people, particularly Roman Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants who grow up in a harsh religious environment, full of the threat of Hellfire and damnation, beaten by the nuns at school and made to feel guilty about things that are merely a part of fitrah (nature) like their bodies are happy to get out of the religion, become very anti-religion, and feel freed as if from a prison. My feeling was not like that; I felt sad, more like I’d suffered a loss, but there was nothing I could do; I knew it would be comforting to believe, but I couldn’t. Throughout the 60s and 70s I occasionally got these gnawing feelings and yearnings.

As Jeffrey Lang said in his book about his conversion to Islam, there is an emptiness and a loneliness that an atheist feels, which people of faith cannot understand. The world is absurd, an accident. Science has, or will have, all the answers, but life has no real meaning or significance. Death is final. You can have influence and an impact on the world through your children; you can do well, be remembered in the history books for hundreds, even thousands of years; when the sun dies mankind may colonize other star systems, maybe even other galaxies. But ultimately, even if it takes 15 Billion years, the universe itself will die, or collapse into a black hole or whatever, and the end is absolute nothingness, the only thing that is infinite is a void. Life, then, is meaningless and death frightening. Truth and morality can become relative, which may lead to moral confusion, hedonism, and worse. But instead of the contempt for religious people that many atheists claim to feel, I respected them, and often envied them the security, the certainty, the comfort they experienced.

I went overnight from almost orthodox to an atheist, though I still loved Jewish languages, culture, music, food, history. I was an “ethnic” Jew, and still a Zionist. Zionism was still largely a political philosophy, not so much a religious one. In fact, at that time there was still significant opposition to Zionism among many of the orthodox. The current religious, messianic type Zionism really didn’t develop until 1967-1973 when Israel seized Jerusalem. I also decided I wanted to be a historical linguist specializing in Semitic languages; but then the universities I chose didn’t accept me, and the one that did didn’t offer Arabic, or even linguistics.

At my university in the early 60s, I came into contact with a wider variety of people. For the first time I knew a large numbers of Protestants, more blacks, and most of the few foreign students, a couple of were Muslim. I was no longer encountering anti-Semitism, and I was beginning to enjoy and appreciate the diversity of Americans and my exposure to the international students. By the end of my sophomore year I was eating bacon and pork chops; at the same time I helped organize and was the president of the campus chapter of the Student Zionist Organization. I was New England vice president in my senior year.

Many of us were politically left-wing, coming from working class families whose spectrum ranged from liberal democrat to communist. We were pro-labor and the American Civil Liberties Union, anti-McCarty, Nixon, the House Un-American Activities Committee. We revered Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson. We were into labor Zionism and the kibbutzim. One thing I want to emphasize, because of the profound effect it had on me years later: at that time most Jews were still socialists or liberal democrats, many were still working class, not quite so successful as now. I clearly remember right-wing Herut party, their expansionist ideology and terrorist activities in the 40s. We considered them fanatics and lunatics.

I took a seminar on the Middle East. At nineteen I thought I knew everything. My professor was Syrian, and I think a Muslim. I was going to teach him a few things. He was remarkably patient and tolerant with me, considering his obvious anti-zionist, anti-Israel position. His criticisms of my papers were objective and mild, mainly that they were too one sided. I began to pay more attention to the other side, and I realized how much propaganda I’d absorbed and how much information had been ignored, if not hidden from us. I didn’t get a very good grade, but I learned a great deal. Professor Haddad made much of the rest of my life, secular and religious, possible.

At the same time, I was becoming more and more involved in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. I joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP, and participated in sit-ins at lunch counters. I helped found our campus chapter of the then mildly radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I majored in government, taking several courses in constitutional law and international relations. I went to Washington, D.C. in August, 1963, in the March on Washington and was standing about 60 feet from Dr. King when he made that wonderful speech.

I’d lost my faith at 15; by 22 I’d lost Zionism. I still had my ethnic heritage, though I’d begun to feel uncomfortable with the clannishness of many Jews. I felt like a normal American fighting for American causes. I prepared to be a social studies teacher, but the job market was not good. After two years of substituting, and a temporary position at my old high school, I joined the Peace Corps, for the adventure and idealism improved my job prospects later and to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. I was selected to go to Uganda, East Africa.

I was extremely happy in that beautiful country, living where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria, teaching students who wanted to learn in a society where teachers were respected. I was learning new languages and cultures. I developed a taste for African and Indian-Pakistani cuisine. Since there wasn’t much else to do in a small, up-country town, I began going to Indian movies. I particularly liked Mohammed Rafi, the famous playback singers, especially his qawalis; he reminded me of my father’s cantorial music. I also enjoyed the Islamic, Omani Arab ambience I found on the coast: Mombasa, Dar ess-Salam, Zanzibar. It was the first time not in a Hollywood (or Bombay) movie that I heard the adhan. Even in the movies its plaintive melodies always sent a thrill through my body. I was learning two African languages, Swahili and Luganda. Swahili was a very easy one for me; over half its vocabulary is from Arabic and practically the same as Hebrew. But Swahili is a Bantu language, and I was fascinated by the similarities and differences between Swahili and Luganda. I made up my mind: here was my (last?) chance to do what I’d always wanted linguistics but now with Bantu instead of Semitic languages. I applied to graduate school.

I returned home through the Middle East and Europe first stop Israel. It was 1969. I was no longer a zionist, but even so, I was surprised at how disappointed I was. I know that part of it was the culture shock of leaving a small, up-country African town, people and a job that I loved; still, I was surprised by the brusqueness and arrogance of the Israelis I met much like the American stereotype of the French. From an archaeological and historical perspective it was a good experience, but I couldn’t get over how alienated I felt from the culture and from what were supposed to be my people.

I refused on principle to visit the West Bank that was before they started building settlements except for East Jerusalem; I couldn’t resist that. Standing at the wall of Solomon’s temple, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa gave me an intense feeling I could not describe at the time. I can describe it now: I was sensing a feeling of holiness; it’s no wonder the Islamic name is Al-Quds. But it upset me a great deal to see first-hand the discrimination and second-class status of the Palestinians, even the citizens. I had grown up in an American subculture where Jews had always been in the forefront of civil rights, labor and civil liberties struggles. To me, what I found in Israel wasn’t Jewish.

The next ten years, 69 – 79, I spent in Los Angeles. I had missed 1968, one of the most important and turbulent years in modern American history. Though not surprised, I was very disheartened upon my return to the U.S. Blacks were separating from Whites by choice; SDS had become a bunch of raving Maoists, free speech was degenerating into filthy speech. I couldn’t be political again, except for an occasional anti-war or anti-Nixon demonstration. I was both attracted to and repelled by the hedonism of 70s California. I was tempted to indulge and half-heartedly did so, but thank God for my fitrah and my good Jewish upbringing I didn’t go very far; I mostly grew my hair and beard long. I was too absorbed in my studies, getting my doctorate, teaching, getting married then divorced, and looking for a decent academic position.

Two things during that decade are relevant tom this story. Briefly, the Likud government in Israel, the building of settlements and the brutal treatment of the Palestinians, not to mention its alliance with South Africa, revolted and infuriated me, and turned me from a non-zionist to a vocal anti-zionist. Even worse to me was the knee-jerk support of the American Jewish community, which I’d though would oppose Likud at least quietly. Didn’t we all agree just a few years before that Begin and his ilk were lunatics?!

Many of the settlers interviewed on the TV news were obviously American Jews. How could they have grown up in this country with these American and Jewish values, live through the civil rights revolution, and go do what they were doing there? There was more Jewish opposition in Israel than there was in the U.S. I felt betrayed, ashamed, disgusted. There were, of course and are other Jews who felt as I did, mainly those on the left, but only a few spoke out. Notable were I.F. Stone, a radical journalist and one of my heroes, and Noam Chomski, whose political writings on the Vietnam war and Palestine were as revolutionary as his theory of linguistics.

In 1979, recently divorced, unable to land a tenure-track position, and missing Africa, I returned as an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Nairobi. My father has passed away just a couple of months before I was to leave. I became friends with several faculty members, particularly my department chairman and a history professor, both Muslims from Mombasa, and the Arabic professor, my Sudanese next-door neighbor. I often ate lunch in the faculty dining room with them, and out of respect for them (and embarrassment, because I knew they knew I was a Jew) I never ate pork when I was with them. Before long I stopped eating pork completely. We often discussed the Middle East, Islam and Judaism, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they could be anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish; they were surprised that I could be a Jew and anti-Israel.

Having more time on my hand than I’d enjoyed in a long time, I decided to catch up on my ever-growing reading list. I re-read the Bible: the Old Testament to clarify some confusion about chronology in ancient history, the New Testament because I never had and I though I ought to.

I re-read the Qur’an. I knew nothing then of the early Islamic history. Sirah or Hadith, but I appreciated it more this time. I got that reaction again, though; why does it have to be so critical of the Jews; but, my memory recently refreshed, I recalled that the Torah itself and the rest of the Old Testament were equally critical, if not more so, than the Qur’an. But didn’t the Jews finally learn their lesson and truly become the People of the Book when they were expelled from Israel and Jerusalem the second time, and when the rabbis, synagogues and prayers replaced the priests, temple and sacrifices? What was it, then, about the Jews of Madinah; they were clearly reprehensible but they sounded so different from us European Jews, even from the Sephardi Jews of the time of the Caliphs; had they, like the Ethiopian and Chinese Jews, lacked the Talmud? I’m still curious about that. Anyway, that insight was later to prove to be a barrier removed.

Someone wise once said that if your faith is weak, just pretend to have faith, and that will strengthen it. Africans, whether Christian, Muslim or Pagan, are spiritual people. To be an atheist is incomprehensible and ridiculous to them. Knowing this, I never said I was an atheist when questioned as I constantly was.

About my religion. I would reply that of course I believed in God, one God, but not in any particular religion. I was almost true, or at least what I wanted to believe if I could. I cannot say that I had a sudden flash of inspiration, like Paul on the road to Damascus, or a near-death experience (I did have two, but without religious effect). It seems to me that, just by saying it and pretending it, it gradually came back to me.

I’d become a deist, like another hero of mine, Thomas Jefferson. Maybe I would join the Unitarian Church, a popular group, especially in New England, which accepts Jesus as a prophet, and which includes many socially conscious, formerly Jewish and Trinitarian Christian, liberal intellectuals.

Another contributing factor was my joining at that time the Nairobi symphony orchestra/chorus. It was an amateur group but they were excellent. I’d gone with some friends to their Easter concert to hear them perform the Mozart Requiem music for a funeral mass. That music, intensely religious, was gorgeous, sublime awe-inspiring and inspirational. It wasn’t only the beauty of the music, though it was a major part, but the message glorifying God, speaking of death, resurrection, the final Judgment and eternal life moved me to tears. The next day I went and signed up to sing in the chorus.

For the next three years I sang other masterpieces: masses, requiems, oratorios Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Verdi. It is all Christian, and some of it of course makes reference to Jesus as divine, but those words had no effect on me; I was just helping make beautiful music. But the parts that spoke of God did touch me deeply and helped me gradually regain my faith and belief in Him. Of course today I would not sing such things as “I know that my redeemer liveth,” but consider the beauty and power of “The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, and he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah (Alhamdulillah).”

Then I fell in love. She was Somali, intelligent, witty, charming, and a young widow with two handsome young sons. Her English was very limited then, and my somali was non-existent, but we could communicate quite easily in Swahili. We discussed marriage, but there were a few practical problems.


>>> Part II

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