A few days ago, I announced that I’d converted to Islam. I was surprised by how many people seemed surprised. I’d like to share a glimpse into that transformation with a few short passages from my new memoir, DRYLAND, which I’ve been working on for more than a year a year and a half. I guess all the stuff in my head hasn’t really seeped out yet, except through my fingertips onto two-hundred well-guarded pages. Hence, the surprise, even to my closest friends and family. Meanwhile, it all seemed very par for my course.
As you may or may not know, I quit drinking alcohol while we were living in Abu Dhabi. After 30-plus years of layovers and hangovers, I was inspired to change in a place where the majority of people enjoy an alcohol-free existence in keeping with their faith.
Watching them flourish while I continued to tank helped me make the decision to quit. When I said goodbye to the former-swimmer-turned-party-girl on March 28, 2015, I wondered who would wake up in her wake.
Lying in my bed in Abu Dhabi, on my first night without a drink in years, I prayed for forgiveness of all my sins and for peace. Father. My father. All fathers. Help me through this night and all the days to come.
Sweat dripped down my brow. I closed the window and turned up the air-conditioning. I kicked off the covers, only to put them back on again. I opened the window again for air. I counted the number of times I rolled from right to left. I tried to count sheep, but could only get to five. I closed the window. I thought of my father’s bravery. I fought against my weaknesses. I imagined myself swimming butterfly, the most difficult and the most powerful of all the strokes, as I headed for dawn.
When Allan came to bed, I asked him to sleep on the couch. I told him that I felt claustrophobic. He kissed my sweaty brow, opened the window, and went back to the living room.
“I love you,” he said softly, closing the door. “I’m here.”
I calmed myself with the realization that even if I were to go in search of wine or vodka, I wouldn’t be able to get any. Spinneys closed at nine p.m. The British Club closed at ten. All the hotel bars and restaurants were shuttered by midnight. Unless I broke into another expat’s apartment, there was no way to get a fix.
I repeated “Allahu Akbar” over and over again, more than a hundred times, more than a thousand. Then I switched to “Wahe Guru” for a thousand more.
Maybe I fell asleep. Maybe I didn’t. I lost track of time, but I was awake when the sunrise call to prayer came from the nearest mosque. I watched the sun rise over the canal out my window. The immigrant laborers were in their buses bouncing across the desert. No doubt some of them had endured their daytime plights by drinking the night away. But I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would never do so again.
Turns out Abu Dhabi was a good place to go sober after all. Images of booze weren’t plastered around town or shown on television. And I easily avoided the hotel restaurants authorized to serve alcohol. Every other establishment in the city was dry. Abu Dhabi was like one big Betty Ford Center compared to the United States… Abu Dhabi saved my life. A country of nondrinkers exposed the depths of my addiction to alcohol. I used the call to prayer as a call to change.
Thinking back on those experiences now, I imagine the minarets on Abu Dhabi’s mosques as my lighthouses — illuminating the way out of my Sea of Lonely. Without them, I might have drowned on dry land. Thanks to them, I was tethered to time and place. Allah was my lifeguard and harbormaster every single one of those days, and still is.
Perhaps if I’d been somewhere else then something else might have happened. But divine intervention –and a crazy twist of fate — helped this swimmer go dry in the desert. Only God could’ve written that.
A year and a half later, in November 2016, I thanked Allah by saying a special prayer in Arabic that means I am a follower. There are more formal processes, including meeting with an Imam, but I’m happy with my private arrangement with the One who brought me ashore. I don’t eat pork now, and my husband has changed our dinner menus to exclude pig parts — a heart-healthy choice no matter your religion.
Not only is DRYLAND the story of my recovery, it’s a love letter to the people and religion of the Middle East. A tale of identity and landscape, of love and redemption. A story I hope and pray will play out in my own country in the days, weeks and months to come.