It was 1989 when I went to Russia. I didn’t want to go, but my mum pushed me to take a bit of a risk and this trip completely changed my life. I felt so welcomed, so accepted by people who were very interested in me. People living in Soviet republics at the time were cut off from the world, but they were very curious about visitors. They looked at me without any pre-conceptions, seeing someone they’d like to get to know. It was the first time in my life when I really felt at home and not at all like an outsider. Once, I was sitting next to this lady who didn’t speak a word of English while I didn’t speak a word of Russian and we had this wordless conversation just pointing at things and nodding. It was very powerful.
For a while after coming back I was obsessed with all things Russian to a point where I considered doing a degree in Russian studies. In the end, I chose to do a degree in history. In the first couple of years, I worked very hard, but by the time the third year came, my social life became more important than academics.
It was the early days of the Internet and I was meeting a lot of people online, which was fascinating for a person who was shy with a bit of social anxiety. Looking back, I feel like I was lucky to be at the beginning of social media, this new way of connecting. At the time, someone in London opened this bulletin board as a part of a final year project. Initially, it was only available to a handful of people within that one university, but gradually it opened up to students from elsewhere. People created accounts and joined message boards or forums and arranged meet-ups. Sounds familiar?
Recently I went back to meeting people online. I found this language exchange site and started talking to people from the Middle East and North Africa who were working on their English. Many of them were Muslims and because I’ve always been interested in religion, I asked them about Islam.
I was raised Christian, but now I wouldn’t say I am a Christian though I see myself as a cultural Christian; there’s just a lot of things about Christianity that I struggle with or don’t accept. At the same time, I have a need for spirituality in my life, so I’m curious and looking for something where I can land. I think in a world where we can buy almost anything, many of us are struggling with existential angst and looking for meaning in our lives.
Through conversations with Muslim friends, I became interested in what Islam stands for. I’ve met some people who were very conservative; some who were losing their faith; some who considered themselves agnostic but were brought up in a religious family, all kinds of people. It struck me that often, if we follow the coverage in the media, everything is just one thing. You mostly hear about very conservative Muslims and extremists so it’s hard to appreciate that. Just as there are variations within Christianity, there is a broad spectrum of opinions within Islam.
In fact, the more I learnt, the more I get interested in doing my own research. These days I feel it’s not useful to get all your information from the media. The more I speak to people in different parts of the world, the more I become aware that the situation on the ground is very different to the situation we’re presented.
The great thing is that Muslims are always happy to talk about religion; it’s really hard to strike up these kind of discussions during a tea round at the office in England, but Muslims are very open. I got immersed in these deep discussions about faith that I felt had been missing from my life.
By nature I’m a person who’s critical, so my approach to Islam is about challenging things, to a certain extent. I ask a lot of questions about why things are done a certain way. It’s easier to do for someone coming from the outside, because I haven’t inherited any of these practices from my parents; so when I look at them, I see them with fresh eyes.
Many of my Muslim friends consider Ramadan their favourite time of year. I was curious, so I tried fasting for a couple of days and ended up fasting for the whole month. I really enjoyed it; I enjoyed the physical and psychological challenge of it, the extra pleasure I would get from my food and drink at the end of the day and the awareness of how good it is not to be hungry. But at the same time, I wasn’t fasting from a place of faith and I was breaking my fast alone. I think there is something very special about doing it when you deeply believe in it and have a community that comes together at the end of the day to share a meal.
I am considering converting, but I haven’t made up my mind. I still need to find the best fit for me. I feel drawn to other cultures because there is a sense of otherness that I recognize and there is also a level of acceptance I get from these “other” people that I don’t get from “my” own. I’ve always felt a little bit different and there were periods in my life when I felt isolated and alone. It made me self-reliant, but it also made me feel like I wasn’t part of where I was. This was exacerbated by the fact that though I was born and raised in Cornwall, by parents that had moved there from London, I never developed a Cornish accent.
I am an outsider who’s looking to self-identify. It is a journey and it's a big journey and none of these questions have easy, simple answers. I feel like a lot of people coming from different countries or being of mixed heritage and speaking more than one language can feel quite isolated. I don't share any of these characteristics, really, but I share that sense of isolation. Connecting to people who don’t seem like me can be a way to find people who are most like me.
The interviewee is a librarian.