A review of "The Butterfly Mosque," a memoir by part-time Seattleite G. Willow Wilson, who writes the story of her decision to convert to Islam, her move to Cairo and her love affair with and marriage to a young Egyptian teacher. Wilson discusses her book Tuesday, June 15, at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

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‘The Butterfly Mosque’

by G. Willow Wilson

Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pp., $24

G. Willow Wilson — essayist, journalist and comic-book author — offers a memoir that focuses on her conversion to Islam and the events that follow. The narrative of “The Butterfly Mosque” is replete with insights into faith, family, cross-cultural courtship and the inevitable “clash of cultures,” making it an absorbing read.

In college, Wilson (who today divides her time between Seattle and Cairo) was enrolled in Islamic and Quranic Studies. But it was an illness that led her to quietly adopt the Muslim faith. This she did without the knowledge of her friends or even family, who had raised her as an atheist.

In “The Butterfly Mosque,” Wilson writes of receiving an offer to teach in Cairo and accepts the position. The year is 2003, and she is 25 years old. Day-to-day life in Cairo proves to be difficult. The city is beset with poverty, pollution and a lack of sanitation. People are weary of an oppressive military government. Many of the amenities Wilson has heretofore taken for granted are nowhere to be found.

“(B)eauty and ugliness are so crowded together that the line between the two is faint and you begin to mistake one for the other.”

Soon, however, she meets Omar, a young Egyptian man who teaches at the same institution and offers to show her around. Sensitive and gentlemanly, he is as well versed in Shakespeare as the literature of his own culture. He is also intensely familiar with the city, which is still a mystery to Wilson. Within a short time, they become engaged.

At first Wilson is apprehensive about meeting Omar’s family, but they extend her a warm welcome and accept her into the clan. As her faith deepens, she searches for meaning in all she encounters. “This was the secret of life in the gullet of the Nile. Kun; ‘Be.’ Good and evil, chaos and order, joy and tragedy — they were all brought into being with the same single word. Kun, fa yakun; ‘Be, so it is.’ “

In a beautiful ceremony by the Nile, in the presence of her American family, she marries Omar. Yet there remains the challenge of trying to straddle two vastly different ways of life.

Although she shuns the company of Western expatriates living in Cairo, she misses the comfort and familiarity of her homeland. Will she decide to make Cairo her permanent home? Will her resilience allow her to blend in no matter where she finds herself, or is she doomed to be a stranger wherever she goes?

Overall, Wilson’s memoir offers the reader valuable insights into the Islamic faith. However, she misses a golden opportunity to expand our knowledge even further when she devotes excessive space to the trials of living in Cairo, at the expense of more information about Omar and his mother, Sohair. Both are fascinating characters and would have enhanced our understanding of the faith, land, and an ancient society had they received more attention.

Still this is a remarkable journey, one that illuminates the humanity in us all.

Bharti Kirchner is the author of four novels and four nonfiction books.