From The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth. Published by Mawenzi House in 2016. Munirah Maclean studied comparative religion, philosophy and education in London, England. She moved to Canada in 1985. She runs a daycare and conducts mindfulness workshops.
This story begins at Mirabel Airport, a lofty, light-filled white albatross of a place in the middle of snowy, white fields not too far from Montreal.
I arrive. I get to Customs; I’m a small white British girl wearing a grey duffle coat with a Turkish kerchief on her head. My passport is stamped
full: Europe, Turkey, Cyprus, India, Syria, Greece, and Bulgaria but (oops) I don’t have a visa for Canada. I didn’t have enough time on my last visit to England to get one. So I make duas. I learned the fatiha and several of the short surahs from the wife of Sheikh Nazim, Hajja Amina Hatun (May Allah sanctify her). I have been a Muslim for six months, I took Shahada and a pledge of allegiance to my sheikh of the Naqshbandi tariquat and got married all on the same day. I don’t have a marriage certificate because I had a Turkish Sufi wedding in a mosque in Nicosia, Cyprus which wasn’t even recognized as a state at that time.
“Hmm,” says the official. “Bonjour,” I say with a bright smile, then more duas and fatihas under my breath. I have come in on a one-way ticket. Naïvely, I tell him the truth. My Canadian-born husband of three months is on the other side of the gate waiting for me. The official sighs. “I’m not going to stamp your passport, you have to go to the British Consulate downtown right away.” Alhumdulillah! Thank you Allah! I have never heard of anyone getting through international customs without a passport stamp before or since.
I’m through! Welcome to Canada! Big Sky! Ibrahim is gorgeous! He is wearing a big fur hat and has a bushy Naqshbandi beard and warm brown eyes. He looks like a teddy bear. And on the subject of bears... yes, there is snow but I don’t see any polar bears out of the car window on the drive to Parc Extension. I meet Davy, my new father-in-law who has come along to collect his son’s newest bride. His car has a hole in the floor, but I don’t find that unusual because in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, where I have come from, you are rich if you have a car at all. “All the other Jews have Cadillacs,” he tells me earnestly, “but I was just a cutter so I worked for the money.” Davy is gentle and humble but confused about his eldest son, who went to Jerusalem and returned a Sufi. After we arrive at the family duplex I meet Sylvia, my mother-in-law. She is wearing a coral pink velvet jogging suit and has come home from her second job. She doesn’t like to sit still,
she thinks it’s lazy. She is, I realize, a clever woman with strong opinions about almost everything. She confides, “I liked the first one, her father had a shopping mall, the second one was a Quebecker, she only liked her own people.” She is reserving judgment on me, the third wife in five years, the new one. I keep my thoughts to myself. With Allah’s grace a miracle takes place, we become friends and my husband’s family becomes my Canadian family for which I am forever grateful. Disparate elements, different worlds, but through the wisdom of the heart we come together. Subhanallah (God is Glorious).
As a new wife, I knew that statistics were not on the side of a long-term marriage, but I decided this one was going to be different. I also knew about the reality of polygamy, having encountered two rather strange German-born women who were travelling together and were married to the same man. They were both recent converts to Islam, and had lived in a vegan commune previously. “Oh it’s fine,” they assured me, “we share the housework and we share Hussein, it’s very convenient for all of us.” They politely took turns having babies each year. I didn’t want that! I wasn’t putting up with that! True to my ideology, I made it a stipulation in my marriage contract that my husband could not take a second wife while he was married to me unless I agreed.
My first visit to the Islamic Centre of Quebec for Jumaah prayer was during a blizzard. New to winter in Quebec I didn’t have an understanding of terms like “more snow,” “less snow,” “freezing rain,” etc. To me it was all fun, a wonderful contrast to damp and dark London. So I took the bus. I figured out the change but when I waved my Montreal map with a large X marked on Grenet Street in Ville St Laurent at the driver, I think I startled him.
At that time terrorists were Irish, but Montreal’s bus drivers were uniquely Quebecois and their multicultural awareness was limited. Despite my smart shalwar qameez and my tuque turban—i even spoke French: “Excusez-moi est-ce cet autobus va á la mosque?”—he was very unfriendly, and told me angrily to get to the back of the bus. Fortunately a kind-hearted
woman told me when my stop was approaching.
In that incarnation, the Islamic Centre of Quebec, ICQ as it is still known, was a long, low building with a homemade minaret on top that looked like a dented crocus bulb. As women were not allowed through the front door—“astaghfirallah (Seek Forgiveness of Allah) sister”—i trudged through a snow bank to get round the back to a fire exit which had a “Ladies” decal on it. Someone had thoughtfully wedged a rubber slipper in it so we could get in.
Once inside, the familiar feel of wet carpeting under dry sock and a waft of curry and synthetic jasmine perfume assured me that I was in the right place. The few Muslim sisters that were there were mostly unresponsive to my enthusiastic Salaams and affectionate hand-clasping, kissing, etc. which I had learnt elsewhere. I thought I heard mumbled things about “Britishers,” although one did ask “Where you are from?” I realize now that my Turkish Neo Naqshbandi hybrid and their Learnedback-home Islam were diametrically opposed. For many of the women who had bravely come to this cold distant country, Islam was marriage, children, and martyrdom, with a bit of tajweed (reciting the Quran), and samosas on special occasions. Many of them stayed home not by choice but because they simply had no idea about the way this society functioned and had no contact with the people around them. If they spoke English, they did not speak French; they had no independent income and lived in apartment buildings in dangerous areas where you had better avoid your neighbours in case you got robbed.