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Geographic, spiritual journey to Islam a love story at heart

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The Butterfly Mosque

A Young Woman's Journey to Love and Islam

By G. Willow Wilson

McClelland & Stewart, 320 pages, $33

In this personal memoir, the American-born author of the graphic novel Cairo and a contributor to DC Comics relies on words to paint her pictures. And like paint, the results are mixed.

Although the Egyptian metropolis of Cairo is a main character in The Butterfly Mosque, it plays background to Wilson's personal journey, which is both geographic and spiritual.

Wilson, 28, graduated from Boston University with a history degree and a passion for Arabic language and literature.

That passion eventually took her to Egypt, where she married a Muslim man, converted to Islam and became comfortable living astride the western and Arab worlds.

But before all this could happen, Willow endured a physical crisis in the U.S. Suffering a terrible reaction to a birth control drug, she vowed that if she recovered, she would covert to Islam.

She did recover, but didn't convert at the time. Then Sept. 11 came along. She reckoned converting under the long shadow of 9/11 would alienate her from American friends. No doubt she was right.

When the dust settled, she and her up-for-any-thing friend, Jo, went to Egypt anyway. Refreshingly, she takes aim at her own and others' attempts to "explain" alien cultures.

"So what was the most unusual thing you saw?" Jo asks her after she returns to Cairo from her first trip to Iran. "Tell me something your weren't expecting."

"Carrot jam."

Jo laughed. "Seriously."

"I am serious. Who makes jam from a vegetable?" It explains everything, the revolution, the hostage crisis -- everything."

The product of a progressive family, Wilson makes a keen observation about western liberals. They're happy to give her various translations of the Qur'an as gifts, but they can't understand her eventual desire to convert.

Most of their perplexity arises from a misunderstanding of Islam in its great diversity -- and human beings in their even greater diversity.

Like many recent guides, Wilson does a capable job of finessing the difference between cultural codes and religious ones.

She presents Cairo as a city of contradictions, but to live briefly in that ancient city with her and Jo is to feel more and more at home.

Like many spiritual biographies, Wilson's can never truly articulate her deep faith or convert us to her cause. We learn that she is attracted to monotheism and that she admires the lack of hierarchy in Islam, as well as its celebration of sex (within marriage) and its lack of prohibitions against contraception.

But it still jars when she mentions without comment sitting in the women-only car in the Cairo subway. And when she surveys the vast region, she touts as progressive such everyday dignities as allowing women to drive and vote.

She remains unconvincing as an apologist for Islam as the most female friendly faith.

All this leaves out the memoir's true spiritual heart, which is a cross-cultural love story. Omar, whom Wilson meets early in her travels, becomes the final piece that fills Wilson's spiritually puzzled heart.

At the end of her tale, we find her at home in faith, marriage and work, dividing her time between Cairo and Seattle. An accomplished journalist, she continues to write about injustice, presenting the armchair traveller with a holistic view of what used to be called "the Orient."

Memoirs like Wilson's continue to be an important counterpoint to the tales of Mideast belligerence that fill the nightly news. At its core, though, The Butterfly Mosque is a love story.

Still, some readers may be left unmoved by a courtship dance that seems more at home in a 19th-century Jane Austen novel. A life lived in subtext is less charming in the 21st century. Like the Cairo heat, some readers may find it stifling and oppressive.

Al Rae, a comedy writer, was one of the creators of the CBS sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2010 H9

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