Religion has played its role in my life, most significantly during the last couple of years. I guess it has been a journey for me. I would like to think that I grew up in a mixed family; 50% of my roots are arabic and the other half cypriot. Extrapolating from that, there is a 1:2 chance that I would either grow up to be Muslim or Christian Orthodox.
Religion did not bother me much until a teacher of Religious Education-yes we have those where I grew up- descriminated me in front of the class. I can still remember him asking me outloud: “You are the Maronite, aren’t you?” I looked at him puzzled; at that time I didn’t know what that even meant. I thought he was asking for my surname… I did not give the incident much thought then but I flashbacks came back of the same scene, when the actual Maronite entered the class. And I knew her surname was not “Maronite”. At that point, I decided to research it and realised that it was just an ethnoreligious minority in Cyprus. Maronites are a Catholic Christian entity, whose name comes from St. Maronas, an eremite living in Syria. A fellow student the actual Maronite, was eventually excused from class as we were going to go deep into Orthodox Christianism for the rest of the year. It was not spectacular, let me tell you that. We ended up memorising prayers by heart in order to get a good grade. Ironic how the government can blindfold children like that. Needless to say, by the end of the year I wish I had answered “Yes” to his initial question…
In my need to understand what Christianity really is, I religiously went to church during Easter time, following all the rules and listening to the chanting of the psalms to Jesus, God, Mary and the Holy Spirit. The language was hard to understand, the smell in the church was rather whoozy and the whole atmosphere felt rather heavy. People knew when to bow their heads, when to say “Amen”, when to pray along. I was lost and felt like a stranger. I stuck through it because I wanted to understand. I still remember that Easter morning, when all the black vails fell down from the icons and everyone started banging their chairs in order to let everyone know that Jesus has risen. I must say the effect was dramatic and caught me by surprise. I did not expect a sudden burst of chaos and panic in the heavy, sad atmosphere I had experienced in the past couple of days. After that I got REALLY into it. I started asking that teacher numerous questions. He gave me answers which in the end somehow did not make sense and other times contradicted each other. I was not convinced.
As time passed, I only went to the obligatory gatherings at the church organised by the school. These were typically taking place either when the school year began or before the bigger events, like Christmas and Easter. For me God at the time was no one religion. God was synonymous to love in my mind back then. The rest I did not know or cared to know. So I became agnostic. This belief carried me through university.
In the mean time, my sister had converted to Islam. I cannot say I was taken aback, as she was even more confused as I was and even got into trouble for expressing her mind back in school. She said she felt at peace once she converted. I accepted that no questions asked but was not intrigued to understand Islam until we were in Cyprus during Ramadan time. I had asked her some questions in order to understand what Ramadan meant and why she was doing it. She explained as well as she could. Later I asked her to send me a copy of the Quran.
When I was even younger, we used to visit the rest of the family, my dad’s palestinian family, who are living in Jordan. I would see my grandpa or grandma kneeling on the floor, then standing back again whilst whispering arabic. I felt that they were experiencing a unique moment and I were not to disturb them. Again, did not understand what was happening. My aunt at the time was trying to explain to me in broken English what was going on. I guess she did not know the word “pray” and kept repeating “Salah”. Dad explained it to me in the end. The holy time with Allah happened often and I had to become 28 years old to really grasp the concept of Islam.
Some people choose to believe that we all learn something from every relationship in our lives. I came even closer to Islam because of a rather dysfunctional relationship. So, once it finally ended and after a rather long illness, I had realised that Islam and the retrospectively scant knowledge I had gained about it was the positive outcome of all the suffering. I visited the nearby Mosque, met with the Imam, asked questions and now I am learning arabic because I want to understand the Quran as best as I can. Once I converted to Islam, I felt free and at peace. My religious journey is still ongoing and I am definately not the best example of a muslim woman, as I am still learning. That might be offputting or even unexeptable to some. Personally I do not care what others think of me; I accept myself as is. I realise this when I am praying, especially during the days of Ramadan. Sometimes I do get distracted and do not feel the deep connection with Allah. Other times during the day I might say or do things that Allah or other muslims might not approve, i.e. I choose not to wear a headscarf or cover my body as intended. And yes, I do not hide away during Ramadan when I can eat during my period. There are things to contemplate upon, there are others where I am learning to cross a red line.
All in all, I am getting better at it. If I were to compare only the physical and mental part during the last 3 Ramadans I can say there has been significant progress. During the first year I was simply accompanying my sister during her journey. I was doing experimentally to feel what she was going through. Of course, by the afternoon I started having a headache, nausea, dizziness, and extreme tiredness. I ended up with having something to eat and rest. The second time around I had already been converted. I believe that this along with praying gave me the mental strength to begin and move forward. As for this year, it seemed to be a piece of cake on the physical part, I was more focused on the mental part. This was actually pointed to me by a dear friend of mine and that reminded me that when faith and connection are there, everything is possible. Other priorities seem now to be more important, like the intention to connect better with Allah and learn some so-called “Duas” and prayers by heart. It is also my intention and goal to fast every Monday and Thursday.
Ramadan feels like a new beginning for me. It is like a second New Year’s Day. As I see it, it builds discipline, mental and physical strength, faith, gratitude and appreciation for the simple things in life, like water. Once it comes to an end, one feels proud for himself and stronger than the last time. Any intentions, wishes, goals and dreams are clearer and willpower is more solid and robust than before. I wish that to all of us, and mostly to the ones that feel lost either in their hearts or minds.
Dedicated to someone special in my heart
Now it is up to you! What is spirituality for you? How does it look like? What religions or spiritual thoughts intrigue you?