by Emily W
There was a flash as the camera snapped the picture. A couple of more flashes came and soon the photographers were done. Kristina stepped away from the garden background along with the other wedding guests. They left behind the bride and groom who remained to have several more pictures taken.
Once Kristina was seated she looked back at the happy couple. Lance and Emma almost looked like something out of a storybook.
“They make a beautiful couple don’t they?”
Her friend Jessica turned to look at the couple and then turned back. “All couples look like that on their wedding day, but they do look great.” Jessica then turned her attention to Kristina. “You look pretty good yourself.”
Kristina smiled. “Thank you!” She looked done at her outfit for the wedding. She wore a white dress that reach down to mid thigh which showed off her legs to great effect. To accompany this choice she had selected a pair of her best earrings.
“So when is the big trip?”
“I leave tomorrow.” Kristina thought about the plane ticket to Cairo in her luggage back in her hotel room. For economy sake she had booked her flight to leave from Boston. That way instead of having to return to Los Angles after the wedding she could just leave right after the wedding.
“You must be feeling really excited.”
“Well, I am feeling really nervous!”
“Yeah, are you going to be ok traveling alone? It isn’t like you are going to Spain or something.”
“I’ve been reading up on safety tips for travelers in Egypt.”
Another person at the table, not someone she was familiar with spoke up.
“Why are you going?”
“Well, I am trying to get in touch with my family history.”
Another woman at the table spoke up. “Your Egyptian?”
“Yes. My grandparents moved to the United States a long time ago. My father was born in this country and my mother was also an American of Egyptian ancestry. My mother died during labor and my father never remarried so I am an only child. I never really got to know my grandparents either. I don’t have my father to ask about them anymore either because he died from an embolism last year”
Several of the people table voiced how interesting they found her story to be and how sorry they were for the loss of her father.
“So I was cleaning out our closet and I found a book full of family documents. They included some pictures too. I decided that I wanted to visit where my family came from, maybe I can find out something.”
“Do you speak Egyptian?”
“I get by in Arabic, which is the language they speak there.”
“Are you Muslim?”
“No! My grandparents were Coptic Christians. In fact my grandfather was a priest. My father taught me about the church growing up and we attended services sometimes. It was kind of difficult to go consistently because he was out of town so often.” Kristina did not say it out loud, but part of the reason she going to Egypt was to deep her spiritual connection. She had grown up learning about the Coptic Church and she knew all of the doctrine. She had attended some services with her father. But she had always had trouble developing a true spiritual connection to it.
Kristina stayed for must of the reception and said goodbye to the newly married couple before going up to her hotel room. As she fell down on her bed and stared up at the wall she thought the journey ahead. He father had been a successful businessman so the estate she inherited was substantial. She had set aside enough money to spend many months tracing down her family’s origins.
She pulled out her father’s picture from her luggage. She still missed him terribly. He had spent so much of his life working. Too much of his life in fact. She had always worried what it would do to his health and sadly it did seem to get him in the end.
“Good night Daddy.”
The flight over the Atlantic seemed to take forever. Her plane had a layover in Madrid where it picked up more passengers. Several of these passengers looked like they were Egyptian. One couple sat across the isle from Kristina. The man had a neatly trimmed beard and his wife wore a conservative long sleeve shirt and long skirt as well as a dark blue headscarf that left only her face visible.
They were a reminder that she would soon be visiting a country very much unlike her own. Kristina looked down at her jeans and short sleeve shirt. She had chosen to wear these instead of her usual short skirts and strap tops. From her readings she knew such clothes would be offensive to most Muslims and even many Copts.
As the plane approached Egypt she pulled the bag out from under her seat and opened it up. Inside were the legal documents from when her grandparents lived in Egypt. Included was the address of a church. There were also some pictures of her grandparents. She wondered if she would be able to find the place.
When she arrived in Cairo she had to wait for what seemed an eternity in the customs line. While she was in the line she looked at all the people around her. There were several long lines filled with people visiting Egypt or returning home. She saw women who did not cover their hair, she saw women with a headscarf, she even saw women who were completely covered in black except for their eyes and hands. Kristina felt a sense of relief that she had been born in the United States were she was free to wear what she wanted.
Finally she was at the front of the line. After a brief examination of her passport the customs officer stamped it and let her through with a smile.
Kristina had pre ordered a rental car which she obtained after picking up her luggage. The clerk behind the counter was a beautiful Egyptian woman with a flowery headscarf.
It took a while for Kristina to locate the car in the lot and get herself situated. With her luggage in the back seat she brought up the GPS on her phone and set it up on the hotel she had booked.
Driving through Cairo was a challenge at first. Kristina found herself constantly alert and on edge. It seemed as if the other drivers had no regard for their safety or even lives. When she was not worrying about her life she had a chance to look around at the massive city around her. It was an incredible sight, with people everywhere.
When she checked into her hotel room she found it to be the height of luxury. Her room was large and very expensive looking. After putting up her luggage she pulled out some maps she had obtained with locations she planned to visit. She would spend some time in Cairo at first. During that time she hoped to attend some Coptic ceremonies and try to forge a connection with her faith. Later she would drive far out of Cairo and visit the town her grandparents came from.
She spent the first night settling into her hotel room and getting her bearings of the immediate area. The next day she headed out in with her bag and started her her sightseeing. She was relieved to discover during the trip that growing up with Arabic had sufficiently prepared her to communicate with people, she rarely had to ask anyone to repeat themselves. Whenever he father was home from business he would work hard to teach her Arabic so that she would not forget where she came from. Some of the lessons even used passages from the Quran but he was always quick to remind her that these were not a part of her religion. First she checked out some strictly tourist locations but then she found a Coptic Church.
She spent several minutes taking pictures of the interior which was impressive by itself, but when she stepped inside she was really impressed. The Coptic church her father had sometimes taken her back home had been decorated but the sight of this church was far beyond that.
There were not currently any services so the church was empty. Kristina switched off her flash and took some pictures. She began to walk up the aisle. There were icons of saints, biblical characters, and of course Jesus.
See admired all of the work that had gone into the place and enjoyed pretending that one of her ancestors might have prayed in the very same church. She was disappointed to find that she was not feeling anything spiritual while in the church. It was all very impressive but it just did not feel like God was with her at the moment.
She had seen when services were going to be held and decided to come back to attend them. She figured that was when she was more likely to make a spiritual connect.
As she explored Cairo she could not help but notice all the women in hijab. Some women did not wear any, but many did. More than once she passed a woman who aside from her hands and eyes was completely covered in black. She remembered in the preparation for her trip reading an article about women in Egypt. The article included an interview with someone who mentioned that several decades ago very few Egyptian women wore a head covering but that there had been a renewed connection with Islam that was causing many women to take the veil. Kristina was wondering whether she would experience her own renewed connection with Christianity.
When Kristina arrived at the church she found it to be full of people. She was a little shy at first but she found an empty place. In this particular church women sat on the right and men to the left. She looked around at the building full of people. All of them gathered here to worship God.
The worship service include traditional liturgical prayers deliver from an altar. Because of what he father had taught her, Kristina recognized many of these. When the priest gave his sermon it was on the topic of doubt. Kristina followed along although she sometimes became distracted because of the amazing sights around her. It was also neat when the priest read Bible passages because it almost sounded as if they were being sung.
After the ceremony she left the church as people were exiting. When she was outside she looked back up at the exterior of the church. She felt strange. She was absolutely glad that she came here and experienced it. It was a really neat experience and informative. And yet…she still had not found what she was looking for.
She spent a couple of weeks in Cairo. She visited a couple of more churches and took the opportunity to visit all the usual tourist spots and even went out to see the Pyramids. After a while though she was feeling anxious, like she was loitering around and missing out on something. She decided that it was time to track down her grandfather’s home.
She checked out of the hotel and began the long car journey south. She had been informed that the area she was going to would be much more conservative. She had therefore changed into a long sleeve shirt and from a local store purchased a scarf to wear over her head. She just tied it under her chin, the hair from her forehead and the back of her head was still present. She realized that Muslim women would use it to completely cover their heads, but she figured that by doing it as an American she was showing a sincere effort to show respect.
Eventually she reached the small town. She did not realize how small it would be. There were probably just a few thousand residents. It was a huge contrast with the huge metropolis of Cairo. As Kristina drove through the town she saw that it made a small market and a mosque and not much else. Her GPS said the location she was looking for was about one mile beyond the town. She continued driving and eventually spotted a large structure set against the side of a hill.
Once she brought the car to a park in front of it she took out the picture of the church. It looked like the same building only there had been some extensions added to it including what looked like a walled courtyard. She got out of the car and approached the entrance. There was a heavy iron ring that she timidly knocked.
Several moments passed by and she wondered whether she should try knocking again when someone opened the door. It was a woman covered completely in black except for her eyes and hands. The sight of her threw Kristina off balance for a moment and she had to recollect herself to speak.
In Arabic Kristina spoke to the woman. “Hello. I am sorry if I disturbed you. I was wondering if you could help me.” She held up the documents in her hand. “I am trying to find out information about my grandfather. He use to live here a long time ago.”
“Please, come in.” The black veiled woman pulled the door all the way open and stepped back.
Kristina hesitantly stepped inside. The interior of the building was not like anything she had ever seen. The floor had a dark blue carpet with plain white walls and carpet. Much to her relief the building was air conditioned. She looked down the long hallway. It was connected with many intersecting corridors. The veiled woman led her down the corridor. Each time they passed an intersecting hallway Kristina looked down it. A couple of times she saw more women covered from head to toe. Finally they reached a door.
“Please wait here.” The veiled woman slipped inside and closed the door.
While Kristina was waiting outside she caught some movement in the corner of her eye and when She turned she saw another woman covered in black. The woman was walking past her but while doing so she ket her gaze focused directly on Kristina. The expression in her eyes suggested it was a mixture of curiosity and alarm that motivated the woman’s gaze. Still, she did not pause but kept walking, a small stack of books in her hands.
Kristina watched the woman as she walked down the hall. With her back turned to Kristina all she appeared to be was a mass of black fabric. So far all the women Kristina had seen were completely covered in black. She reached up to her own, very loosely fitting headscarf. She tried to tuck some stray strands underneath it, perhaps in the hope that she could make herself seem more conservatively dressed. However, she still felt underdressed.
A few moments later the door opened and an elderly Arab man with a long white beard stood before her.
“Salaam aleikoum. How may I help you young lady?”
“Oh, hello. My name is Kristina Meawad. I told the woman who let me in that I was looking for some information. You see, I think my grandfather use to be a priest here?”
The man’s eyes widened. “Meawad? Oh, YES. I knew your grandfather. I never expected that I would be seeing one of his descendants. Yes, YES! I believe I can help you young lady. Please come in.”
The elderly man backed away from the door and went over to a filing cabinet. Kristina stepped inside. They were in a library with books stacked everywhere. She saw the veiled woman standing in the corner watching her. The man was hunched over a drawer flipping through files.
“Here we are!” He stood up and came over to her.
“Inside this file is everything I ever found in this place related to your family. I hope it proves useful.”
Kristina took the file out of his hands. It was absolutely stuffed with pictures and documents. She felt her heart leap at the sight of it.
“Thank you. Do you have a copier that I could use.”
“You do not need a copier young lady, I am giving those to you.”
“Yes, as far as I am concerned they are your property anyway. I am glad to return it to its rightful owner.”
“You are most welcome. Is there any other way I may be of help to you.”
“Well, there is actually. Could you tell me what you know about this place? I thought it was a church but it does not seem like it.”
“Well, you are partly correct. This was a church. It was your grandfather’s church in fact, he was the priest here.”
“He was?!” Kristina could barely contain her excitement. After so much waiting she was getting the information she was looking for.
“Yes. His congregation gradually moved out of the town, either to larger cities or elsewhere. He stayed until the last one left. When he decided to leave I purchased this place from him so that he could afford the trip to America.”
Kristina tried to take everything in as the old man talked.
“I have converted it into a school for young Muslim women who need to improve their devotion to Allah. I’ve built a separate mosque building behind the main building and a courtyard for them to pray and contemplate the higher truths in. At any single time there may be as many as three dozen young ladies here engaged in studying the Quran.”
“Oh.” She was not expecting this but it was interesting all the same.
“Over the years I found things that belonged to your grandfather and placed them in there under the chance that someone might come looking for them. And here you are today!” The old man smiled widely and Kristina did the same.
“Wow, that is such an amazing story. Might I come by tomorrow so I can hear more about my grandfather?”
“Of course, it would be my duty to help you.”
“Oh thank you. Can you tell me where the nearest hotel is?”
“Oh…I think it actually about three hours away.”
“Oh…” Kristina realized that she would have another long drive ahead of her.
“Perhaps…perhaps there is a better option.”
“We have several bedrooms here for the women to live in while they complete their studies. Some of them are empty, you are welcome to stay here if you like.”
“I would not be making a burden for you?”
“No. Tomorrow you can come by after the first meal. You are welcome to eat with us as well.”
“Wow, thank you!”
“There is just one thing.”
“I am afraid you are a little too immodestly dressed for this place.”
“I am?” Kristina suddenly became even more self aware that she was in jeans with a scarf tied loosely on her head while all the other women were completely covered in black.
“Yes, since you are not a student I will not require you to wear niqab, but I would ask that you do dress more modesty.”
Kristina felt bad like maybe she had insulted the Imam the way she was dressed. She agreed to wear some clothes that they would provide her while she was staying there.
The Imam and his veiled wife helped Kristina get her luggage inside. She found the room she was assigned to be plain, but clean. It had a single bed and a small table. She unpacked her belongings and stretched out her legs on the bed for a while. After the Imam left his wife helped fit Kristina with an abaya. After it was secured in place the woman told her when the meal would be served and then left.
Kristina brought out a hand mirror and began examining herself from multiple angles. It was a totally new sight. Aside from her hands and face her entire body was covered in black. She had to admit that the look was striking in its own way. She struck a pose for no one in particular. Kristina decided to pray before leaving for the meal. She crossed herself and said “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Her whispered prays were for her to find out more about her family. When she was done she remained still for a while. She did not know if her prayer had been answered or not.
A little later she left her room and arrived in a large communal hall where a long, short table was situated. Kneeling down along the table were several more woman covered completely in black except for their hands and and eyes. At the far end of the table the Imam was also kneeling down. Each girl had a plate in front of her full of food. Kristina was led over to an empty space with a full plate in front of it. She got down on her knees and smiled shyly at the black clad girls around her. The Imam spoke briefly and they began eating. The experience was a little unnerving as no one spoke during the meal so Kristina ate in silence. At the very least the food was really good. One thing she noticed was how the women had to bring the food up to their mouths by going underneath their face veils. Kristina was glad that she did not have to do that.
After the meal the girls picked up their plates and took them over to what looked like an adjoining kitchen. Kristina was about to pick up her own plate when someone did so for her and whisked it away. After the meal Kristina retreated back to her room. She spent a couple of hours pouring through countless old photographs until she had exhausted the entire file. She was about to go to bed when a loud speaker came on and a voice that she was sure was the Imam’s began:
‘There is no god but God and Mohammed is His Prophet…’
Out of curiosity Kristina got up and opened her door a little. She saw the veiled women walking purposefully down the hall. When they were a good distance away she slipped out of the room and discreetly followed them. They exited the building through a back door and took a small stone path to a building that she assumed to be the mosque. Eventually everyone was in there and the doors were closed. Kristina lingered a while and then began walking along the perimeters of the grounds. When she returned to the front of the building she looked out at the small town below. The sun was low in the sky.
The next day she had the morning meal like she did the previous night and then joined the Imam and his wife in his office. The Imam shared several stories with her about her grandfather, some of which made her laugh and some made her cry. She wrote them all down so that she wouldn’t forget any. After the Imam said that he had told her everything he could recall she thanked him.
“What do you intend to do now?”
“Well, I was planning on visiting the town and taking pictures. Would it be ok for me to stay one last night?”
“I do not see it being a problem.”
“Wow, you are so generous. I feel bad like I am taking advantage of you.”
“Nonsense. Take what time you need.”
Kristina drove back to the town below and explored it. There was not much to see and despite making liberal use of her camera she ended up with few pictures. As she explored the town she realized how out of place she felt. Clearly most the town’s inhabitants knew each other and recognized her as a stranger. Still, they did not say anything or harass her. She supposed that it helped that she was wearing the abaya. With her body covered in black except for her hands and face she was probably dressed conservatively enough for the townspeople. She noticed that most of the women were dressed more conservatively than in Cairo. A large portion of them covered their faces as well.
Eventually Kristina returned to the school. After the meal she explored the hallways of the school. Her thoughts kept turning to how this place had been her grandfather’s church. Now instead of serving as a place for Copts to worship it was a place for young Muslim women to become more pious. Kristina felt some sadness about that. Although she was finding it hard to spark a real connection with her God she still identified herself as one of his worshipers.
While she was exploring the building the call to worship sounded and the walls were soon full of veiled women making their way to the mosque. Kristina watched them past by for a while and then when the hallway was empty again she followed up to the back exit. Once the last woman had entered the mosque building Kristina stepped outside.
She stared at the entrance of the building. She knew the basic details about Islam as anyone raised in an Arab household, even a non-Muslim household, was likely to know.
She thought back to the passages of the Quran she had studied while learning Arabic. Curiousity got the better of her. She walked forward and stepped inside. The women were busy performing ritual cleaning of themselves in preparation for prayers. They did not have their face veils on. Kristina saw that they were all young Arab women, many of them very pretty. Several of them saw her but focused on their tasks on hand. Eventually they were done and they stepped into the room beyond.
Kristina watched them line up shoulder to shoulder. Eventually the Imam’s voice came in on a loudspeaker. He started speaking the prayers. The women all stood perfectly still. Kristina was impressed with their concentration on their connection with God. She then had to quickly remind herself that these women were not worshiping God, only their version of him. The almost melodic words kept coming from the loudspeaker.
Then it happened. The women all bowed, perfectly in unison. The moment Kristina saw this something overcame her. It was difficult to articulate at first. The women stood, they bowed, and they kneeled on the ground and placed their faces to the floor. During this entire process a feeling was building up inside her until it seemed overwhelming. Kristina stumbled backwards and left the mosque. She hurried into the school and rushed to her room where she closed the door behind her.
She paced around while trying to explain the feeling she had experienced. A thought entered her mind and would not leave. Could it have been God touching her soul when she was watching the prayer? The implications of this were too terrible to contemplate. She crossed herself and said a very lengthy prayer. When she was done there was no sign of the feeling. In fact she did not feel anything at all.
She looked down at the abaya she was wearing and pulled it off as if it were on fire.
She tried to go to sleep that night. However she was unable to. She found herself laying in bed, staring at the wall on the opposite side of the room. The only other time this has happened in her life was when her father passed away. Eventually she did fall asleep.
That night Kristina had a dream…
She was walking towards a medieval Egyptian town along with her mother. They were dressed in plan homespun clothes. The two of them carried a bucket of water in each hand. They discussed some the various things that women of any era like to talk about. When they returned to the village they were still chatting until her mother saw something. She followed the direction of her gaze.
A couple who up to yesterday had been Christian were returning to their home. The wife’s hair and face were covered.
Her mother spat out a low curse at the couple. She then proceeded to reiterate her story about how in her childhood there had been only a few Muslims in the village. These were accompanied by the bitter complaints about all the converts.
“But mother, the taxes are so high. You can understand how they might feel the need for relief.”
“No amount of money is worth one’s soul. They will all be damned.”
After delivering the water to their simple house and helping with some extra chores she had some time to herself. She used this time as she had been for the past several months. She snuck through the town until she reached the mosque. Her heart was beating heavily all the time while she was doing it. This was not just for fear of being caught. Today was the day…
She reached the mosque where the Imam was waiting for her. In front of a small group of Muslims she made her declaration of faith. She was warmly welcomed by all who gathered there. They then gave her a simple garment to cover her head and face. As she stepped outside of the mosque she saw her mother standing there watching her. The look of hurt betrayal on her face wrenched at her insides.
Kristina awoke from the dream with a start. She was breathing heavy and sweat made her forehead damp. As she laid back down on the bed she thought about the dream…
The next morning Kristina hurriedly packed her bags, After returning the abaya to the Imam she thanked him for his hospitality. Very soon afterwards she was driving away from the school. All during the drive she tried to convince herself that she was not fleeing the school. She forced a narrative in her mind that she was simply moving on with the rest of her trip.
The drive to the main road felt like a race. She could feel the school and its mosque behind her. It was almost like an anchor, threatening to pull her down. Eventually though she reached the main road and as if she has crossed a threshold her mind found itself free of worries.
She was able to focus on the next part of her journey. After about an hour of driving she arrived in a major city with some more Coptic churches. She would visit them, she would participate in the services, maybe she would find what she was looking for. A small voice in the back of her mind whispered the suggestion that she had found it already…back at the school. Kristina crushed that thought and instead focused on what was ahead of her.
When she reached a suitable hotel she paid for a room and soon she was standing on the balcony, he body leaning against the rail, several floors above street level. She stared out at the city, its modern buildings existing in the same vincinity as older traditional buildings. The sight of the sun slowly setting seemed to make the image all the more alive. Then there was the sounds of the city, the cars, the voices from the street down below. People were going about their daily lives in this place.
Kristina was beginning to feel at peace when she heard a sound. It was the call to prayer ringing out from the minarats through out the city. She straightened up from her leaning position. Soon people would be lining up to begin the movements of worship towards God. All of it meant to show their submission to Him. As the voices swept through the city Kristina felt a stirring in her heart, then the tears started running down her face. When she reached up to wipe them away she found herself starring at her hand, not moist from the tears. Why was she crying? There was a sinking realization that the beauty of the call to prayer was touching her. In a hurry she was off the balcony and back in her room, the sliding glass door closed behind her. She buried her head under the pillow.
The next day she attended a Coptic ceremony in a church. It was a beautiful ceremony, but she did not find it touching her like the Islamic prayers had. So she sat through it, perceiving everything but feeling nothing. Afterward she stepped outside and looked around. She felt unsatisfied. She was about to take out her phone and pull up the map program when something caught her eye.
Down the street a woman in the niqab was walking down the sidewalk. Kristina watched her with great interest. Maybe it was not the woman that interested her so much as her own reactions at seeing her. She did not find herself pitying the woman or thinking she was oppressed. Instead she found herself wondering what it must be like, to wear the niqab.
Before Kristina realized it she was following the woman, her pace quickened so that she could close the distance. All the time she thought about the woman in black ahead of her. This woman loved God so much that she concealed her entire body except for a slit over her eyes. Kristina wondered if she felt closer to God that way. Instead of pity she was beginning to feel envy.
She followed the woman for several blocks until she entered a mosque. Kristina desparately wanted to follow her inside but there were several men standing in the front. They had long beards and stern looks on their faces. Suddenly Kirstina became all to aware of her her relatively immodest coverings, the long sleeve shirt and pants with loose scarf felt as protective as a bikini. All the men gave her disapproving looks. Lowering her gaze to the ground as she walked by she found herself wishing she had a niqab on so that she could go in.
Later when she had returned to her hotel room she heard the call to prayers again. Only this time she did not hide in her room. She stood outside and listened to the words. She found herself wanting to join the prayers so badly.
She knew where she needed to go next on her journey
The Imam had been more than happy to allow Kristina to return to the school for a couple of days.
After the morning meal the next day Kristina found herself lurking outside one of the classrooms. She would occasionally peak inside at the students. They were all seated on the floor, their eyes completely locked on their respective copes of the Quran sitting on stands in front of them. Kristina wondered what they felt, reading the words in those books. Was it anything like what she had felt when she was watching them pray.
Eventually she stopped by the Imam’s office and asked if she could have a copy of the Quran to read. The Imam did not subject her to any questions or comments but simply complied with her request and provided her with a Quran and a stand.
Back in her room Kristina found her heart racing. She could not believe she was doing this. She was not a Muslim, she was a Copt. Wasn’t she? If she was, then why had she never felt anything like what she experienced last night when she prayed or attended church? She took off her abaya and sat down on the floor with the Quran situated in front of her. She reached out with a shaking hand and opened it. After a couple of pages she reached the first surah. She was about to read it when her attention was drawn to the abaya on the bed. She shook her head and returned her attention to the words in front of her. Before she could begin reading her eyes strayed again to the abaya. With a frustrated sigh she got up and put it back on.
Before she could sit back down a feeling washed over her. She looked down at herself, at the black abaya that hid most of her body. She contemplated herself for a moment. Was this how God wanted her to dress? She slowly sat back down and silently read the first surah of the Quran.
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds. The Beneficent, the Merciful, Master of the day of Requital. Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help. Guide us on the right path, The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors, Not those upon whom wrath is brought down, nor those who go astray.
Kristina’s heart was beating so fast she could feel its vibrations in her ear. There was a feeling welling up in her. She looked up from the book but saw nothing. Her mind was too fixated on the experience to bother with anything her eyes or ears were telling her. Kristina was beseeching Allah for help. She felt lost and confused. She needed him to guide her to the right path. Surely that was what he was doing when he touched her the previous night.
She kept reading…
The Imam allowed Kristina to sit in with the classes that the students attended. The consisted of sessions where the Imam would lecture on a passage from the Quran or about a Hadith. The students sat in silence and listened to what he had to say. Kristina would sit and listen with undistracted attention. Every new piece of information she learned seemed to fill in a gap.
Once, in between classes she asked the Imam why the other girls did not speak.
“The voice, like the body is awrah. The young ladies studying here are learning to protect their modesty. Please keep in mind that many of them come from very bad backgrounds. They dressed immodestly and partied and mixed with boys. Here they are not just learning about the principles of Islam, they are putting them into practice.”
“But my face is not covered and I am allowed to talk?”
“You are not a Muslim and not a student here, so it would not be proper to make those expectations of you.”
“What if I became one?”
“Then things would be different. If you enrolled in the school you would have to follow the rules. Of course if you enrolled yourself, then you would be free to leave at anytime. Most of these young ladies have been sent here by their parents. As such they can not leave until their parents are satisfied with their progress.”
Kristina thought about the things the Imam had said. Her Western values found some of the ideas disagreeable, but she was willing to overlook them for the moment for the sake of learning more about Islam.
In addition to the classes taught by the Imam there were sessions where the students were gathered just so that they could silent read the Quran to themselves. When Kristina was kneeling infront of her Quran on its stand she took a moment to look around at the other students. All of these women covered in black had once been liberated girls. Now they were all pious girls. Kristinia could not be sure, but she suspected that each one of them had experienced a change of heart. When they prepared for prayers they had a single minded determination on their faces. Even now, their eyes seemed transfixed.
Kristina looked at her abaya clad body. Covered in black, she felt close to God, to Allah Muslims called him. When she would eventually leave this place, would she continue to wear the abaya? She loved the feeling it gave her, a closer connection to God.
Later when she was in the mosque for prayers she felt even more intense feelings of devotion.
The days that followed blended into each other. Every possible waking moment was spent reading the Quran. She only took breaks to sleep and eat and sometimes she forgot to do the latter. Each new verse she read out of the Quran filled her with a renewed sensation of peace. Long before she finished reading it she could feel herself becoming Muslim. There was a competing feeling, something akin to guilt. All her life spent as a Copt acted like a weight. She read truths but doubts chained themselves to those truths, trying to weigh them down.
Gradually the chains dissolved. The confusions drifted away and all she was left with was Islam. Finally, she finished the last surah in the Quran. She slowly stood up and walked to the edge of her bed. From her luggage she pulled out the picture of her father and a small Coptic cross that had been in the family for decades.
She looked down at both of these and considered them for a long time. Finally she put the cross away but left out the picture of her father out.
“I still you love Daddy. I’m sorry, but I have to do this.”
The call to prayer began shortly and Kristina left her room to join the stream of women heading for the mosque. As she entered the mosque she proceed to clean herself, one of the women silently showed her each step. Then before she knew it Kristina was shoulder to shoulder with them. The Imam’s voice came over the loudspeaker. During the entire time Kristina was being driven forward by the overwhelming feeling that what she was doing was the right thing. As she began to bow and prostrate herself she found her thoughts being drawn back to the Coptic church she had attended in Cairo. Despite the beauty of everything that happened in there she had not felt a connection to God. But here, in this place with this simple ceremony it was almost as if God was right next to her.
The next morning she visited the Imam in his office.
“I wish to revert to Islam.”
The Imam gathered the entire school in the mosque where Kristina took her shahada. After it was over the other girls came over and welcomed her into Islam. Soon afterward Kristina took the niqab for the first time.
Kristina was in her room holding the piece of black cloth that the Imam had given her. Now that she was not just a guest of the school, but a full student she would have to follow the dress code.
She examined herself in her mirror.
Without the niqab on all that was visible was her face and hands. She lifted up the niqab to her face and tied it in place. After adjusting it only her eyes were visible. She could not see it through the niqab, but she felt a tear trickle down her face.
Only her eyes and hands were visible. As she studied herself she found happiness bubbling up inside her like a spring. She looked so devout.
Kristina remained at the school for a couple of weeks. She left her room completely veiled, she walked the halls in silence. After attending the classes she left the classroom convinced of the truths the Imam spoke. When studying the Quran she allowed the words to flow into her. And when she prayed she found her faith pouring into her. Slowly she felt her Coptic Christian and Western American identities fading away. Gradually they were being replaced by her new Muslim identity
As she packed her luggage into her car she paused to look out at the vast desert landscape. She then got into the car and started the engine. Before taking off she glimpsed a sight of herself in the rearview mirror. The niqab covering everything except her eyes. She was not a Copt anymore, if she ever had been. She was a Muslimah. The Quran instructed women to cover and the Prophet Mohammed had instructed his wives to cover everything but their eyes. Kristina felt herself being closer to God with the niqab on. Being a Muslim was her birthright, as it was for everyone in the world. No one could see her underneath it except for God. She was doing something that pleased God and that in of itself was very humbling. God had gone to so much trouble to show her the way, to lead her to her path. For the rest of her life she would live in total submission to God, and totally veiled.