My Journey to Earthbound Paradise
By Zeina Mena
How unpredictable is life! I never thought that I would be sitting here writing about a conversion story. Nevertheless, I never knew how much meaning it would pose on my life. I come from a broken family, which is almost normal in America. I was born and raised in New York City, and I am of Dominican descent. I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school, and went to Catholic Church along with completing all of my rituals except for marriage. I always saw myself as a person that was close to God, especially after my parents’ divorce, which devastated me emotionally in ways imaginable. I needed emotional peace and often found myself seeking it through church.
Two years after moving to Miami, and graduating high school, I met a Palestinian friend at a dental office which I worked in who taught me so much about the Middle East crisis and took the time out to explain things to me which were completely oblivious to my knowledge. Then I began to realize how ethnocentric people in America are. Time went by and my learning of politics continued. At the same time, my empty heart kept screaming out for love and happiness. One Sunday while feeling depressed, I decided to go to church, after a few months that I had not gone. I wanted to hear soothing words and know that someone cared. Forty-five minutes later, I walked out of church, and I never went again.
My interest in finding religious fulfillment grew stronger, so I decided to look into the various religions that were available. Although I was searching with an open mind, I did not want to go to anything that was not monotheistic. I chose to learn about Judaism. I read so much, went to a temple, and tried to learn and figure out if I could live my life as a Jew. I then decided that in order to grasp the essence of the Judaic teachings, I needed to go to the source and that is the Torah. That night after I finished reading the Torah, I lay down to sleep and the most confusing (at that time), yet most amazing dream happened to me.
In the dream I wake up in a hotel room where I seem to be confused about why I am there. I decide to go outside to the lobby, and I find myself in a religious convention. I walked to my left, and there was a table about Judaism. I was trying to fit in with them, but they did not want me to be part of them. I then walked away and walked straight ahead from the room and there was the Christianity section. Everyone in that section seemed to be in his or her own world, and no one paid attention to me. I again walked away and I wondered into the right side of the hallway and found people walking peacefully, all of them dressed in white.
To me this seemed weird and honestly, I did not know what it was, so again I walked away, this time heading to my room. Suddenly, this man appears behind me, and starts telling me “convert.” Frightened, I told him, “leave me alone” and started walking faster. Although he seemed to be walking slowly, he was able to keep up with me and again told me “convert” to which I again replied, “Leave me alone!” The man refused to give up and followed me all the way to the room. I hid behind the bed when he again told me in a stronger voice “convert!” I, frightened and confused, told him, “Leave me alone. I am a Muslim!” For some time, I never knew the meaning of that dream. What puzzled me was the fact that I was learning about Judaism and that I would actually say that I am a Muslim in the dream. I kept asking myself why I would say that.
A month passed and my Palestinian friend invited me to an Arabic restaurant knowing that I loved the culture. I excitedly agreed and went. That was three days before Ramadan. There I met her friends which all happened to be Muslims. She was Palestinian Christian. I became friends with them immediately. There was one friend in particular who took the time out to explain to me about Islam and what its teachings were.
I learned about the five pillars and basic things like it was even bad to torture insects. Although I had already learned about it, and I thought it to be interesting, I liked what I was reading about Judaism, and I did not want to change now that I had learned so much. That idea changed a few days later. It was already Christmas vacation, and Ramadan had started. My friend went back home to Syria, to be able to spend the last ten days of Ramadan there. I being the inquisitive type of person said to myself let me just see what this is all about. I logged on to my computer and from the encyclopedia printed out information about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and read it. It seemed really interesting and made me want to read more about the religion itself.
I printed out the information about Islam and that too ignited my interest to speak to Muslims to see how they were and how they thought. I logged on to the web and went to a Muslim chat room where I just stared at the conversation. So many instant messages popped up in my screen asking me if I was Muslim or if wanted to learn about it. They were all telling me about Islam, the five pillars and everything but there was one particular person that took their time explaining everything, and if I asked any question, it was answered. That person was a Muslim brother who was enthusiastic about teaching me. He taught me so much and even went on to explaining to me the importance of covering.
He also sent me my first Qur’an and many books on basic Islamic information. As I read the Qur’an my heart felt as though I was going to explode. I felt that I had found what my heart was searching for. So many emotions bombarded me that I broke down in tears. This holy book was speaking directly to me and with all its power it soothed my soul. I gave in to Islam in heart on the 21st of Ramadan in the year 2000. It was then that the door to a new enriching world opened up for me. It was the day that marked the turning point in my life.
It was again time to go back to college for the spring semester, and although I was already Muslim and was praying on my own from a piece of paper, I needed someone to teach me and guide me. God knows what you need before you need it because that first day of class, while I was walking in to the campus a Muslim girl was walking out. I immediately ran up to her and asked her if she was Muslim, to which she replied yes. I told her I had converted and that I needed to learn how to pray correctly. She automatically offered herself to do the job, and also invited me to a get together at her house that day. I was so excited! After school I rushed to the mall to find a headscarf, something that a month before I was disputing because I felt that women shouldn’t have to cover, and I wore it to her house.
Everyone was amazed and happy to see that I had already worn the veil. I felt so much happiness that day to have found her and her sisters. They were so nice to me and were eager to teach me. The following day, I woke up for school, got dressed, and again put on my scarf. My mother watched me as I dressed and started laughing when I put it on thinking that I was joking. When I told her “bendicion mami” which is asking for the blessing of your mother in Spanish. She replied, “You are not planning to go like that to school, are you?” I told her, “Yes, I am”. She couldn’t believe it and thought I was going crazy.
I went to school that day and although people looked I felt good that I was identifying myself as a believing Muslim girl. My friendship and my learning grew stronger with my two new friends. They taught me everything from the Fatiha to prayer, to ethics in Islam. I read so much and interestingly enough I learned more about my previous religion when I converted then when I was a Catholic. I often found myself in situations where people would ask me questions and that pushed me to learn more and to compare the Bible and the Qur’an.
Although that was the beginning of a new life for me, it was also the beginning of family torture. I never knew how much religion could affect a family, and I never thought that just because I now believed something different that they would cause me so much pain. Everyday I woke up in the morning, I woke up happy to know that I was Muslim, and anticipating the challenge of my mother and stepfather along with everyone else that was close to me. My mother believed that I was going crazy. She shouted at me telling me to take that ugly veil off. She called me names and told me that I needed to see a psychiatrist, and I, all the time in tears refused to take off my veil. My stepfather also made it very hard on me to the point that one day he told me, “Either you take that off, or you don’t come into this house.” I turned around and walked away flushed with tears in my eyes yet holding them back because I knew that choosing to keep it on was the right thing. That day I went to my friend’s house, and I ended up staying there for two weeks. I never felt so much peace. I felt so loved and welcomed. I woke up with the Adhan every morning to pray with my Muslim sisters and to get ready to go to school.
During this time I kept in touch with my mother although the conversations were really weird. When she realized that it was not a “few days thing”, she called me crying asking me to go back to the house, that she missed me. I must admit that I love my mother very much, and it was such a hard decision. I did not want to hurt my mother, but I felt so happy where I was, because I was able to be me. I went back home with the agreement that I was going to be allowed to wear my hijab. It was fine for a few days, but then other things started bothering them.
It bothered them that when a man came to the house I quickly went to my room and that I wouldn’t share much time with them anymore. Yes, it is true, I did start drifting away, but not from them, just from the things that they did, that are prohibited for me to be around. When my mother saw me praying, she would mock me. Everyone in my neighborhood thought I was going crazy. I did not hear from my “friends” anymore and before I knew it, my life was heading in a different direction. My goal was not to be skinny and in fashion anymore. It was to please Allah.
Throughout the year, I did shed many tears, but my faith was stronger. I knew in my heart that someday it would be ok. My first Ramadan was very emotional for me because I remembered all that I went through. I realized how blessed I am to be a Muslim, and because I felt alone in my house. No one in my family celebrates it, and no one cared. It was just me and God. This was the completion of my first year as a Muslim, but it was also the beginning of my second year.
When I ponder on all that has passed. After the first year, everything was easier. My family, although not convinced that this was right, they acknowledged the fact that it was not a phase that I was going through, and that whatever it was, I was staying with it. I learned to practice my religion, avoid the wrong, and still fit into my family. I realized that as long as they knew that I was only becoming a better person, and did not “bother them” with anything, it was ok. Today, my mother knows many things that are “haram.” My little sister can tell you how judgment day is going to be. My family cooks a second dish for me when I am visiting them and best of all, and they accept the fact that I am Muslim girl.
How amazing is the plan of God. So many things in my life seem to be clearer. Still until this day, I ask myself, “Why did God choose me?” I don’t know the answer, but I do know that even if it has been in small ways, I have touched the lives of many people around me. They now know about a religion that they had no idea of. And it’s no longer “those Muslims”, because they have one in the family.
My struggle still continues, and I am sure it will for the rest of my life. I have learned that this experience has only taught me to be stronger, and it made me realize how much my belief means to me. I also know that I cannot ever imagine myself not being a Muslim. Islam has given me the peace that was taken from me. It has taught me to appreciate life. It has educated me in all aspects of life, but best of all it has taught me that my journey on earth is short. With all the hardships that I encounter everyday, my heart leaps of joy knowing that although I am not in paradise, I have found something like it on earth. That is Islam.