Twenty years ago I gave a girl a Valentine’s Day card. We were high school seniors and I misspelled her name on the card. I was a mere month out of drug rehab, where I had been placed due to my daily consuming of a concoction of marijuana, alcohol, LSD, PCP and other chemicals. During the previous four years, I had developed a bad habit of breaking into cars and taking other people’s belongings. A former girlfriend of mine had carved my initials into her wrist with a razor blade and then cut the veins. She lived. On more than one occasion I woke up covered in my own blood, urine, and vomit with no clue where I was or what had led me there.
The girl who I gave the card to, who I had known since the tenth grade but not really interacted with much, had her own history. She was from Afghanistan. She was in Kabul, the capitol city, when the Soviets invaded. She went to school one day to find a whole new set of teachers who idolized communism. She threw rocks at occupiers and had assault weapons pointed her way. Her core memory of her family’s escape from the war is looking at her longtime nanny running after their car begging for a chance to say goodbye. For security, her parents had told no one of their plan. When she got my card on Valentine’s Day, she responded by giving me a book on Islam, her faith. I tossed it aside with a comment about religion being for weak people.
Embracing Islam probably saved my life
When I later read the book, I found it appealing. Islam’s approach to life — essentially do your daily prayers and then go live your life and try to make the world a better place — was pragmatic and simple. I embraced Islam two years later. I went alone to her parents to ask their permission to marry her. I was invited to eat dinner with the girl’s mother and father and felt quite intimidated. I was served lasagna (not an expected Muslim-world dish) with superhot cheese in the center. It felt like it was inflicting second degree burns on the inside of my mouth but I managed not to spit it out. My culinary heroics worked and I received their blessing. We had a religious marriage ceremony while we were still in our teens. Shortly after the ceremony, her father had me in their backyard digging a ditch with a pickax in the cold. He was illustrating the consequences of anything less than my absolute best behavior when it came to his daughter.
My wife’s first encounter with my world involved meeting a friend of mine whose father had just been angrily ramming this friend’s head into a wall of their house. The stream of cursing was awful. The idea of a father inflicting that kind of abuse on a child was totally alien to my wife. It was common among my friends. One of my first encounters with her world was at a dinner party at her parent’s home. Men and women were in separate rooms. I saw the men eating while my mother-in-law and a couple other women cooked. I drew my own conclusions and vocally refused to eat until the women did. I was taken aside and made to understand that the women had already eaten.
Giving my wife that card has opened me up to a number of such assumption-changing encounters. I have been told to go back to my country, based on the assumption that any Muslim must be a foreigner. I have been complemented on my excellent English, based on the same assumption. My life has been threatened, on the assumption that as a Muslim, I must have had advance notice of the 9/11 attacks. I have been identified for extra security screening because of who I was traveling with, on the assumption that someone who looks foreign is more likely to be a threat than white Americans, even though terror acts have been committed by Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bombing), Terry Nichols (Oklahoma City bombing) and Eric Rudolf (Olympic Park and abortion clinic bombings).
Embracing Islam probably saved my life. I had a rather wide range of unreasonably self-destructive behaviors that faded away in view of the faith’s message about respect for life, and the benefit and blessing of living in a wholesome way. Certainly it has made me a better citizen. I am law-abiding (except for sometimes speeding when I drive). I no longer steal. I no longer abuse people. I do an honest day’s work which I believe serves the public good. That, however, is not the image of Muslims, whether American-born, convert, or immigrant, that you get through the media these days.
Today I will give my wife the exact card I gave her twenty years ago, misspelled name and all. This time, I am Muslim. And in addition to her being my every-day sweetheart, I am expressing my appreciation that in response to that very card, she helped guide me to a faith that gave me back my life.