A Few Specific Muslims I Have Talked To

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve talked to many Muslim people about faith. For some reason, these are the ones that stand out in my memory for the unexpectedness of what they said, the sincerity of their belief, the difference between my perception of what a Muslim looks like and what they looked like, their personal qualities, or some combination of these things. I’ve tried to write what they said without interpreting it here – although of course the questions that I asked in order to get them to talk more may betray some expectations I may have had.

Azerbaijan, 2015 – Khalid

I met Khalid online while in Azerbaijan. We spent a day walking through the old city talking about life in Azerbaijan, life in general. Many people in Azerbaijan are not particularly religious. Khalid was more religious than many – religious enough in any case to feel the need to impress on me fairly early on that “ISIS and people like them are not real Islam.”

As we were walking through Baku’s old city, he said, “You know, the world is a bit like a video game. Game companies and programmers create video games with certain parameters, and certain rules for winning. I understand that God could have created the world in any way he chose, but he chose this way. So I think that the most important thing about life is to follow the rules of this game, because the rules could be completely different if God had willed it.”

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Kyrgyzstan, 2016 – Marina

Marina did my nails at a salon in Bishkek. She was a cheerful ethnically Russian woman originally from Kyrgyzstan, who’d donned a shirt that day which betrayed more than a hint of cleavage.

“Do you like this job?” I asked her. “Oh yes!” she said. “I love this job. I love making people feel happy and beautiful. It is very interesting and funny for me.”

“How did you end up doing this job?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I used to live in Dubai. My first ex-husband was Syrian. And I had no job. I was very bored. He said that I would get an education and continue university when I got married to him, but really I was just all the time at home – no education, nothing! And you know, in Dubai you have people to do everything for you so I didn’t even do houseworks. We divorced and I moved back here to where I grew up and got trained to do this job. I’m very happy now doing this.”

“That’s great.” I said.

“So where are you from?” she asked.

“Canada,” I said. “But I actually live in Istanbul with my boyfriend.”

“Is he Turkish?” she asked.

“Yes, he is,” I answered.

“Does his family like you?” she asked. “My second ex-husband was Turkish and his family did not like me.”

“Oh?” I said. “Why not? Because you weren’t Muslim?”

“I am Muslim!” she crowed. “I converted before I even married my first husband – and he didn’t even believe in anything, not anything, nothing. He didn’t want me to become a Muslim. But for me being Muslim felt right. My second husband’s family just didn’t like me because I was not Turkish. They wanted to their son a Turkish girl. You must be careful with your boyfriend and his family.”

“How did you decide to convert to Islam?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “It didn’t happen immediately. Actually, it used to be, I used to have a job and on my breaks I would go out behind a mosque… to smoke. And I would hear the call to prayer – you know the call to prayer? And it didn’t happen immediately, but I felt something. I really felt it. And for me religion is something you feel. So I converted. Not everybody understands that religion is something you feel. I tried to explain it to my mother once. I said, “If you named your daughter Ayshe, how would you feel?” And she said, “That name is feel wrong for my daughter.” And I said that if I had a daughter named like “Maria,” or “Anna” I feel myself the same way that “Ayshe” is for her. Then she was understanding me.

At the end of the pedicure, I asked her if she drank.

“Of course!” she said. “Yes, of course I drink!”

“What kind of vodka would you recommend I bring home from Kyrgyzstan?” I asked.

“They are mostly all nice,” she said. “If you pay a little more, they are better.”

 

Kyrgyzstan, Ramadan 2016 – Nurdin

Nurdin was an AirBnB host in his late twenties that I found along the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. Despite being ethnically Kyrgyz (Kyrgyz people are – at least traditionally – Muslims) he was observing his first Ramadan fast. His parents, brother, and sister-in-law were not fasting, so he spent a lot of time in his room until after sunset when he would come and join the rest of us to eat. I didn’t understand he was fasting until I’d been staying at his place for five days already; I invited him to go hiking with me if he wasn’t busy and he apologized for not coming as he didn’t think he could force his body to hike if he wasn’t eating all day.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I hadn’t realized you were observing Ramadan. Of course you shouldn’t go hiking.”

“Yes,” he said. “Sorry I didn’t tell you, but I just think Ramadan and religion are private things – you do them for yourself, they are between you and God. It is not good to do them only to boast to other people that you’re doing them. You know, here in Kyrgyzstan we have big problems with radicalization these days – these people are not practicing the real Islam, but I want to practice Islam in a good way. So that’s why I didn’t tell you.”

Turkey, 2014 – Ayse

Ayse was an incongruously kind and patient housekeeper for the first (and last) family I worked with in Turkey. She arrived wearing her hijab every morning, but usually removed it to tie her hair back if the man of the family wasn’t home. One day I tried asking her to help me with something in broken Turkish; she asked if it could wait until after. It was then that I noticed she had her head covered. “Oh sorry,” I said. “Yes, go do your prayers. It’s not urgent.”

“You know the prayers?!” she asked excitedly. “Do you know Ramadan too?!”

 

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