Book Review: “The Butterfly Mosque”

Ramadan is quickly approaching, ushering in with it bountiful family iftars, long nights in the masjid, suhoors spent stuffing one’s face until the ardent sound of the melodic athan, mornings devoid of coffee, and hot lazy afternoons spent perched on the couch monitoring the clock for maghrib, or watching mindless TV – where food commercials are seemingly more abundant.
Before every Ramadan, I promise to spend my days reading more Quran and books, and every year this promise silently dissolves as soon as I wake up with dry lips and a growling stomach. Determined to make the best of my time, I took a different approach. I started reading a few weeks earlier to get in a consistent rhythm and to rejuvenate my faith in preparedness for the holy month.
I picked up G. Willow Wilson’s rich memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, after numerous recommendations from a dear friend, and I couldn’t have made a better decision.
Published in 2010 at the cusp of the turbulent Arab Spring, Wilson’s salient book follows her culturally rich and spiritually enlightening journey through Egypt and Iran, where she navigates through themes of religion and spirituality, cross-cultural relations, misogyny, fundamentalism, and femininity.
Raised by strictly atheist parents, Wilson didn’t know much about Islam growing up, and as she puts it, her seemingly “liberal” education at Boston College didn’t offer much about the 1400 year-old religion. Curious and suddenly diagnosed with a serious illness, Wilson begins exploring her new-found interest in religion, particularly Islam, by engaging in meaningful conversations with her friends and reading books about the Abrahamic tradition.
Within months, the tragic events of September 11 take place, leaving her, like the rest of the American public, confused, upset and angry. She writes that in the months following 9/11, Islam became a widely discussed religion (as it still is). She notes that it was only socially permissible to discuss it in academic circles, where it was analyzed and critiqued, but anyone who was seriously interested didn’t dare mention that s/he considered converting, as she was at the time.
Despite her misgivings about Islam and Middle Eastern culture, Wilson resolves to live in Egypt for a year to teach English at an international school after graduating college.
Upon her arrival to the politically oppressive nation, she meets Omar, a Muslim Egyptian and a self-proclaimed Sufi, and there starts a patient love story between two intellectual individuals of different worlds.
Wilson expends much time exploring the dichotomy between East and West. She closely monitors Egyptian cultural norms and actively contrasts them with Western norms to better understand where the two cultures diverge and converge.
She pays particular attention to the role of women in Egypt, a predominately Islamic society, and compares it to women’s place in America. She articulates, “It was a tantalizing contradiction, being a woman in the Middle East–far less free than a woman in the West, but far more appreciated.”
While reading some of her observations about Egypt, I found myself marginally irritated. She highlighted the harassment women endured on the streets and on public transportation, the religious fundamentalism evident in mosques in urban low-income neighborhoods, the political repression, and the hyper-religious bureaucracy that complicates the process of getting any paperwork done. I thought she was being complacent in the mold of inaccurate American media, which she claimed to disparage.
Yet, I learned that I was annoyed because everything she articulated was actually the truth and reflected my own experience in Egypt, and that of others who visited the country. After much personal reflection, I found that for years I was ignoring certain truths to uphold a selective and immaculate image to utilize it as a method to refute the animosity and misunderstanding I heard about Egypt and the larger Middle East. I was the one being complacent to reconcile and harmonize my conflicting identity.
This isn’t to say that Egypt is entirely bad, or that Wilson presents a negative portrayal. Rather, Wilson conveys an accurate representation based on her own experience and attributes Egypt’s flaws to a failed political and economic system that has social and cultural repercussions, which the Western media mistakenly and conveniently attributes to Islam.
Wilson’s well-artiulated memoir, written in fluid prose that reflects the various emotions and nuanced challenges she endures, offers an intimate experience of a convert living in a vastly distinct society from the one she was raised in. Replete with political, social, and cultural analyses that enable the reader to better understand Islam and distinguish it from Arab/Persian culture, this book is a great read for anyone with a dual, Eastern and Western, identity and for anyone with an interest in East-West relations.