I was born in a small village in the north of England in 1986. By faith, my mother is a Roman Catholic and my Father is from the Church of England, yet both of them were not really practicing their named religions, and do not these days either. I suppose those were just categories for the sake of when someone asks, “What are you?” we would just respond “Christian.”
I was an extremely curious child and would always challenge my parents as well as society- why things were done the way they were, why behaviour should be a certain way and what’s the purpose behind our emotions and actions. Don’t get me wrong here, I was not a rebellious child, just extremely inquisitive and wouldn’t accept replies or reasons based on the first answer, not without a challenge anyway.
I remember the four year old me standing in front of a statue of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross at our local church, the church where my parents got married, asking… “Mummy, why is Jesus bleeding? Why is he crying? Why does he have a crown of thorns on his head? Who did that to him? What did they want to achieve by torturing him?” …And the list as you can image went on and on. The concept of Jesus Christ I had in my mind as a child of four was that he is limited and could not get down off that cross to feel better, to have a hug, to stand for justice for himself and for others. It upset me to see him in pain, I wondered to my little self, if he is the son of God almighty, and as confusing as it was at the time, as well as the Holy Spirit, and sometimes God Himself, surely he shouldn’t be restricted to his fate at the cross.
The curiosity grew as time came to take my holy communion where I was more excited to wear a cute white dress than what it symbolizes. I was told by coming of age and eating the bread (body of christ) and drinking the wine (blood of christ) I would be eternally a Catholic, committed to serving the church and following the teachings of Jesus. For one reason or another, I never did go through with my Holy Communion and due to family commitments and life passing by we moved to the south of England where religion and church attendance were a distant memory.
Starting from 6 years old, I changed schools many times while I was young. Being the new and different girl became the norm. I embraced being different, I’m used to be the one from a different place, different accent, different look, different opinion to everyone else. I remember comments such as, “what lovely olive skin she has”, “Oh she really is petite isn’t she”, “Oh she’s very opinionated for 6” etc etc. Being different didn’t bother me, rather it made me confident. I was unique and I knew it from a very young age. I loved people and people loved me. Answering the question: “Where are you from” would turn into a very long winded conversation, another theme that has manifested in my life now.
Lo and behold, by the age of 12 I had decided to convert to “Born Again Christianity.” I wasn’t satisfied with the concept of praying to statues and seeing Jesus suffering on the cross, and Mother Mary, what did she have to do with it all? My attraction to the Born-Again denomination of Christianity was that it absolutely does not tolerate statues, icons or symbols of God or any saints or prophets. The concept was no intermediary between the human and our Creator. When we pray, we are to pray directly to God almighty our Creator, not Jesus. Well, so I thought. That is how it was explained to me at the beginning of my new conversion, however later we were told to add the sentence “In Jesus’ name, amen.” That puzzled me as I thought I was on a role here, praying directly to God, the One true God who created us all, however only to say at the end of prayers “In Jesus’ name.”
You may be wondering what on earth my parents were thinking at this point about my new religious choice. They just took it easy and accepted my new found faith. They were not really practising as I mentioned anyway, so as usual I was the odd one out. I would attend church at 12 years old while everyone else chilled out at home or went out for brunch. In 1999 our family of four moved to Dubai, UAE. Those days the British community hadn’t really heard of Dubai and for some reason everyone at school mistook my news of Dubai for Saudi Arabia. Teachers told me scary stories about how I would have to wear a black bag over my head and to watch out for beheadings. Oh and the famous comment of watch out in case you get your hand chopped off!
We packed our bags and set off as expats into the unknown world of the Middle East. We were told it is a Muslim country so we must be respectful at all times, make sure we were modestly dressed and no swearing. As most British expats may agree, being an expat in Dubai was just awesome. All of a sudden luxury life kicked in, we had a housemaid, huge villa the size of an English mansion and all the perks of an expat lifestyle, you name it, we had it. My brother and I were enrolled in a private international school and strangely enough, fit in for the first time, since everyone at school was “From somewhere else.” I thoroughly enjoyed my teenage years in Dubai. I was still practicing Christianity amidst my non-practicing family and found a baptist church in Jumeirah that I could be part of. My family would drop me off on Friday’s while they had brunch together and pick me up afterwards saying things like, “Did you have fun praying Liz,” partially mocking me but at the end of the day they let me get on with it.
I was never once introduced to Islam from the age of 13 – 18 despite being in a Muslim country with quite a few Muslim friends from school and other places. I remember hearing the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) for the first time when I was 13. I was on Sheikh Zayed road with my family and heard it blaring. My first reaction was “What the hell is that noise?” to which my mum and dad replied, “Liz we have been here 2 months and you haven’t heard it before? That’s the Muslim call to prayer.” As if everyone knew about it and I didn’t! So much for attention to detail. In short, I was completely indifferent to hearing the call to prayer and didn’t really think much of it.
With time, I learnt the basics of Islam due to living the lifestyle at school we had Ramadan and some students and teachers would be fasting and the cafeteria windows would get blocked out. We didn’t eat pork much at home due to the fact that it wasn’t sold in regular supermarkets and so on, the real basic stuff, but not the Islamic faith, just the stuff expats come across.
Time came to choose a university. I graduated from high school in 2004 and headed off to live alone in Leeds, UK. I studied Public Relations and set off by myself in my country while my parents were “home” in Dubai. How ironic. I was 18 and had some sort of culture shock. Here I was back in England, my home country, yet due to the culturally rich and amazing experience of Dubai I was home-sick, but the other way around.
Despite being home-sick, I found myself enjoying my uni experience. As a freshman, I was 18 and loving the new adventure living away from home in my own flat, responsible for literally everything. I didn’t miss Dubai as much as I was enjoying my new life. People always ask me if I felt something missing. The answer was and still is, no. Nothing was missing. Everything was perfect the way it was. I continued to attend a church that was attached to my university. Admittedly, I found it a bit boring since I was a teenager going through all the regular things teens go through. I was not a goody goody, nor a rebel. I was religious but deep in my heart in my own way. I was proudly Christian but not a fanatic. I was just chilled.
When the 7/7 bombings in London happened, I started researching Islam. I wanted to understand why the religion of Islam that I had sort-of experienced from living in Dubai had a terrorist connotation in the UK. While condemning acts of violence and terrorism, I refused to believe Muslims were the reason. I knew the Islamic faith wasn’t my cup of tea, yet it also wasn’t a religion of terror. I wanted to find out for myself. That curious four year old girl came back once again. I read the Holy Quran in English and studied the doctrine of Islam at my own pace, seeking to understand why people do what they do.
As teens tend to do, I partied a lot with Muslims in the UK, boys and girls. Every time I’d ask them why does Islam say this or that, they would reply, sorry Liz, we aren’t the best examples of Muslims to ask such questions, you should visit the mosque or an imam to answer your questions. So I did just that. I visited Leeds grand mosque as well as researched online a lot. I found myself drawn to Islam more and more but was too stubborn to believe I could possibly be a Muslim already. Everything I used to believe as a four year old child was answered through the concept of Tawheed (God’s Oneness) in Islam. I just wasn’t aware that there is a faith that corresponds to that innate belief.
The truth is, after researching Islam it became clear to me I have actually been a Muslim all my life, I just didn’t know that was the name for it. I was innately drawn to the Oneness of God, and the idea of praying directly to our Creator with no mediator, saints, prophets or partners in divinity.
It was at the age of 19 I decided to declare my shahada (The testimony of faith) which would enter me into the faith of Islam. I was back in Dubai on my summer holiday from Uni when I decided to visit the Islamic center to make it official.
I remember feeling in awe that I was worthy to have found the purpose of life at such a young age. I reflected back on all the life-style breadcrumbs that lead me to this conclusion.
Naturally, as a new Muslim, I was up and down with my faith. I still continued to do what I always had done. I was the same quirky teenager. I still partied, I still was uniquely me. The only difference was my attention to learning the Quran in Arabic for the sake of my 5 daily prayers. I did not wear the hijab until much later, when I was 23. Sure I tried it out, one day on, one day off, hats, turbans, beanies you name it. I did my best to continue educating myself on understanding Islam. I learned Arabic and presently I am pretty fluent.
I was offered a job after graduating from university with a big company in Qatar. I flew out alone and single, wondering what this new land would bring me. I lived alone in Qatar, finding my way as a reverted hijabi-wearing Brit; the stranger as I always have been enjoying the new journey and wondering what could be next.
I lived alone in Qatar for 3 years until I met my husband at work in 2011. We didn’t date, and that is the truth, lol. We were able to get to know each other at the workplace, until one day I was invited to his house to meet his family. We got engaged in April 2012 and our wedding was later that year. He is chilled just like me. He was straight up from the beginning just as I was with regards to intentions for marriage. I told him ‘I’m doing my best as a Muslim, I don’t date and don’t agree to meet up alone. Although I’m no angel, I am here to please Allah and marry upon correct terms, a way that pleases Him.’
We are now living as chilled out Muslims, doing our best to stay close to Allah and raise a family. We have one baby girl named Maria who speaks, Arabic, English, Farsi and Filipino. A baby girl born to diverse parentage, yet born in the Middle East. I suppose there are so many of us with a new type of story. It’s the new generation.