Reaching for the Moon
By Kirk Nielsen
I recently had the good fortune of becoming acquainted with several lovely Latin ladies. At the risk of committing the sin of stereotype, I found them, in some ways, typical of the diverse group of Latinas I’ve known over the years. They displayed intelligence and brawn. They were outspoken, analytical and disciplined, yet devoted and submissive. They believed in miracles and strove to be angels. They wanted to feel protected and were at least concerned with death, if not preoccupied by it. Above all, they were faithful. But my four new acquaintances were distinguishable in one significant respect. They don’t believe in revealing their flesh in public, except maybe their hands and their faces. That’s because they are all Muslims, that is, they are devoted to the religion of Islam.
Muslim organizations estimate that of the 35 million Hispanics in the United States about 400,000 practice Islam. That’s a small percentage but one that is on the rise, along with the Latino population. Altaf Ali, executive director of the South Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said: “The majority of Hispanics embracing Islam tend to be women. What I gather talking with them is that most of them are soul-searching.” In accounting for the trend he noted that there are “many similarities” between Hispanic and Muslim cultures, particularly with regards to an appreciation for “family values”. Hispanic converts also tend to have qualms with aspects of Catholicism, Ali added, although he diplomatically dodged specifics. But the ladies were forthcoming, and kindly submitted themselves to the interrogations of an infidel. Though diverse in nationality, they offered similar motives for shifting from Catholicism to Islam. None of the reasons was even remotely reminiscent of the most notorious Hispanic Muslim, Jose Padilla, whom the FBI arrested in May 2002 for allegedly conspiring to commit terrorist acts in the United States.
“I was just a frustrated Catholic all my life,” says 52-year old Rori Kanar, a customer representative at a Miami area company that supplies and repairs aircraft landing gear. “I love to have faith. My mother raised me with a lot of faith.” But certain things about Catholicism had bugged her, like the practice of confessing to a priest. “I’m a very analytical person,” she notes. “Why should we have to confess our sins to a priest” How can he forgive me when he sins also, when he’s liable to sin also because he’s human?”
Feeling pressured to donate money to the church, even as a child, also bothered her. “When I was going to Catholic school they would demand a lot of money, besides tuition,” she recalls. “On Monday, they would embarrass you in front of class because you didn’t bring your envelope.”
Another turnoff: “I didn’t like to go to Mass and hear them telling us that we were eating the body of Christ and drinking the blood of Christ.”
Rori also didn’t understand what was so important about worshipping in a church. “Why would it be a mortal sin if you couldn’t go to church,” she complains. “What if you couldn’t get a ride?” And she disliked the Catholic Church’s prohibition on divorce. “What if your marriage doesn’t work out?”
In some ways Rori is a typical cubana of Miami. Her father, Martin Diaz Tamayo, was a general in Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army. She was 5 years old when her dad took the family to Miami in 1959, after Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime. Her dad sold cars, her mom took care of Rori and her brother. Rori attended a Catholic high school, received an accounting degree from Miami-Dade Community College, then worked in real estate.
Rori’s introduction to Islam came via some University of Miami students from Saudi Arabia and Syria she befriended while in her early 20s. They gave Rori a copy of the Koran. Several months later she took her first plunge into religion: fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. “I didn’t think that a person who likes to eat as much as I do could do it,” she jokes. (The fasting, during which one must not eat, drink, smoke, or have sex, begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.) Soon she started praying five times a day, as the Koran requires. It took her eight more years, though, to work up to covering her head and neck with a hijab the Arabic word for scarf, and obscuring their rest of what she immodestly described as “gorgeous” 5-foot 8-inch body whenever she left home.
Rori had holy tendencies as a teenager, namely thoughts of becoming a nun, so concealing her physique from the public was not a big deal for her. Her friends didn’t care when she started covering up for Allah. Ironically, it was her devout mother who complained loudest about the eclipsing of her daughter’s skin. “She was a very Catholic lady. She was obsessive about it,” Rori offers, recalling her mom’s efforts to reign her in as a teenager. “But when I started covering she said, ‘You are so beautiful! Now you can’t go to the beach and wear a bathing suit.’ Or I used to wear a lot of low-cut dresses that I wasn’t wearing any more.”
But why, the infidel may ask, must a Muslim woman conceal her body in public? She does so not only to protect herself from lustful stares, but also out of “respect for other men who are not your husband,” Rori explains. “Why should I look extremely attractive in front of men who are not my husband?” She had a point there. Moreover, the Muslim woman may dress scantily “and do all that stuff” in private, for her husband.
Rori considers herself unusual because she converted to Islam before she met her husband, as opposed to after. “Usually women convert because of their husbands,” she observes. She married Ahmet Kanar, a leather garment manufacturer from Tokat, Turkey, about 10 years after she converted. They now have 17- and 18-year-old daughters and a 19-year-old son, who despite their rebellion-prone ages all practice Islam. “So far so good,” Rori declares.
It was only earlier this year that Yolanda, a Chicago native of Mexican descent, and her 47-year –old Palestinian husband Tawfik got serious about Islam, even though he was raised Muslim in ramallah in the West Bank and Yolanda married him 20 years ago. “Recently my husband has embraced Islam. I had always said that when my husband embraces his religion, I will follow,” she explains. Getting serious means, among other things, getting up at five o’clock in the morning for the first of five prayer sessions throughout the day. Their 18-year old daughter and 12-year old son submit to the early morning ritual, but not their 17-year-old son.
“I walked away from Catholicism,” Yolanda says. She first did so mainly out of respect for her husband, because he was not Catholic. But later there was another reason. “All the problems with the priests and the children, that just turned me away,” she admits.
As with Rori, fasting during Ramadan was the point of departure for Yolanda. She started doing so 10 years ago, along with celebrating Muslim holidays with her husband’s family. But like a lot of Protestants, Catholics and Jews I know, Yolanda and Tawfik weren’t praying regularly at home or elsewhere. Yolanda confesses she still has qualms about taking other fundamental steps on the road to Islamic perfection. For example, she has yet to make a trip to Mecca, which all Muslims are required to do at least once during their life. “I’m not ready for that”, she says. Nor does she wear a hijab in public. “Maybe one day.”
I had to ask Yolanda about one of my qualms: the part of the Koran that instructs Muslims to kill infidels. Yolanda said she had heard about that. “That kind of scares me. But I don’t see that in this family,” she responds. “There’s things in the Koran that I don’t like to get into too deeply.” LUZ AMPARO
Logic played a big part in the conversion of Luz Amaparo Abdulkheir, a 41-year-old native of Pereira, Columbia, who now lives in Pembroke Pines in suburban Broward County, Florida. Seeds of discontent with Christianity had begun germinating in her youth. “I had questions that were not very well answered,” she says. The confessing to-a-priest thing lacked credibility for her. “Why when we commit a mistake do we have to confess to a human being, when in the moment when we’re executing that act God is watching us directly?” she asks. “What power does a priest have to say, ‘Okay, I forgive you in the name of God’? When did God give authority to a priest to forgive another person? I find it very illogical.”
The Mary-as-mother-of-God concept perplexed her, too. “As a very little girl I said, ‘But if God is the creator, who created the mother of God, then? If God created this universe, and a mother already existed, then who created this mother?”
Islam was delivered unto Luz Amparo 11 years ago, while she was living in New York City, crafting wallets and other leather goods. The messenger was an Egyptian man named Khaled, who became her husband. Khaled says he wasn’t a dedicated Muslim when he met Luz Amparo. But one day in New York, after they had married, he had something of an epiphany. “Time goes by and you get older and you look at things a different way,” Khaled began. He had been looking through the pages of an old personal phone book at the names of friends and relatives who had left this world. “I said, ‘Is a piece of paper stronger than all these lives?’” He started studying Islam, which eventually offered him a “mechanical understanding” of life and death. It was his praying that caught Luz Amparo’s attention. “He just explained to me what he did [during his praying rituals],” she remembers. “And it seemed very logical.” Above all, she liked the logic of the idea that there is only one God. “God didn’t have children,” she assures.
After Luz Amparo converted to Islam she discovered annoying parallels between Colombian and Muslim stereotypes. Most informed people know that only a very small fraction of Colombians are cocaine traffickers, guerrillas or violent criminals, just as a very small fraction of Muslims are terrorists. One day she heard a national AM radio host committing the sin of stereotype, she called and spoke with him off the air. “I was saying to this guy terrorism, terrorist groups, al Qaeda don’t represent the religion or the thought or the feeling of all Muslims,” Luz Amparo recounts. “Nevertheless people look from the outside and they see Muslims and they associate them with terrorists. And then they see us Colombians and relate us to drugs and drug trafficking.”
As regards the mandate to eliminate infidels, Luz Amparo insists: “Islam doesn’t teach anyone to attack anybody. But if they attack you, it is your obligation to defend yourself.”
Liliana Parochi’s itinerary to Islam was basically that of a love story. “More than anything it was by chance,” the 46-year-old Peruvian says. “It wasn’t that I was looking for a religion, or was depressed, or anything like that.” One of 12 children from a lower-class Catholic family in Lima, she had moved to South Florida in 1980, soon earned a surgical technician’s degree and at age 26 was making good money at a hospital in Kendall, a suburb of Miami. “I had never had a bad experience with Catholic religion or the Presbyterian churches I had gone to,” she explains. But something was missing. “I had accomplished what I wanted to. I came to this country. I had a job, I had my money, I bought what I wanted. Then a moment came in which I said, ‘What is life really? I was working a lot, at night, during the day. And I said, ‘This isn’t a life. What else is there to life?’”
Liliana, who was single and living with her mom, had become interested in Saudi Arabia through a Filipina nurse with whom she worked. “She told me she had a brother who lived in Saudi Arabia and that they made good money and it was a bit more relaxed there, that at noon you go home, have lunch, then go back to work, that life was very soft.” So, while visiting relatives in the Washington, D.C. area in 1989 she had a nephew drop her off at the Saudi Embassy to inquire about hospital jobs in Saudi Arabia.
“When I entered, it seemed strange to me,” she recalled. An embassy official told her his country was looking for registered nurses and encouraged her to become one. One her way out she remembered that her mom had asked her to bring back a souvenir from an Arab store, and the official gave her an address for a place called Islamic Center. Having never heard of Islam, she thought she was going to a shopping mall. When the taxi driver stopped, she was in front of a mosque, thinking she was at the wrong place. A guard forbid her from entering the mosque because she wasn’t covered, but she was allowed into a little shop, where she was intrigued by pictures inscribed in Arabic with verses form the Koran. She asked the male shopkeeper to translate. “I said, ‘This religion has meaning. I like it,’” she recalls. And she left with several books.
When she returned to Miami she began to study Islam intensively and liked it so much she decided to convert. The transition was smooth. “There wasn’t much difference with Catholicism,” she told me. “In Islam, you can’t be Muslim until you believe in Jesus, and there is belief in angels and the Judgment Day and in heaven and hell. Almost everything is similar. But the form of prayer is totally different. As for Jesus, we see him as a prophet, not as son of God.” She believes in the Islamic view of Mary’s Immaculate pregnancy as a miracle. And she praises Islam’s refusal to associate God with saints or other images, which she notes is similar to what a Presbyterian minister told her about Presbyterianism.
A year later she returned to Washington D.C. on vacation and visited the Islamic Center again to buy more books. On her way out she struck up a conversation with an elderly black Muslim woman. “She asked me, ‘Do you want to get married?’” Liliana says. The woman showed her a long list of names. “At that time there was no Internet, so communication was difficult, and it was difficult for people to find Muslims to marry. She worked there and met a lot of young men who had told her, ‘Hey if you meet a little sister, give her my address, give her my phone number.’ And she had a lot of numbers and said to me, ‘Look at all the brothers who have given me them while I was working here. And just joking I said, ‘Okay, it could be good to have a little Saudi man. Get me one from there.’” And the black woman showed Liliana the name of a Saudi man who had called frequently, hoping the black woman would lead him to a wife. Liliana left her number and address with her new matchmaker and returned to Miami. “As soon as I entered the house the phone was ringing.” Liliana chuckles. It was Murie Bahabri, a native of Jedda, Saudi Arabia, calling from California, chatting her up, and asking her to send a photo.
Liliana soon flew to San Francisco and spent three days with him. To make her comfortable they were chaperoned by a married couple who were friends of her blind date. Liliana flew back to Miami and six months later, after a few more visits, she married him. “I like the respectful way the man who really practices Islam treats a woman,” Liliana affirms. She and her Saudi husband now have two teenage children who happily practice Islam, though she admits the kids don’t always get up to pray at sunrise.