Remona Aly
Sunday 01 February 2009 emel

Tea with Lucy: A Convert’s Tale

It’s a fairly windy day, and all is quiet in the coffee shop on a waning Wednesday morning. I wait, flicking through a now slightly battered book whose cover depicts a serene archway peeking through to a beautiful mosque façade. It relates a journey, a series of adventures even, that is disarmingly charming in its honest narrative. I sit on a coffee-stained sofa waiting for its author. Within a moment, Lucy blusters in, high on energy and suffering from a misbehaving hijab. “I hope I’m not too late!” she pipes, with a clear wide smile and a warm embrace to match.

The next hour and a half is crammed full of anecdotal encounters from an entertaining life: stories that would make you laugh, and ones that might cause you to shed a tear. It ends on copious amounts of caffeine but a distinct thirst for more.

In the meantime, Lucy fixes her scarf and we settle down to a nice pot of English Breakfast tea. She appears to be in a good mood, or perhaps she is always like this. Judging from her book and from this moment, she is an affable, no-nonsense kind of person and she certainly speaks as she writes. Lucy Bushill-Matthews, to be formal, is in the UK for just one more week, having moved to South Africa with her husband and three children, and before she leaves these pastures green she has a few dozen things left to do.

Yet we move our minds away from the chores of today, and turn back the clock some 30 years to stop in 1980s middle England. Lucy is the daughter of a stable middle class family, and lives amongst other middle class white suburban people. So with a very English upbringing, peppered with piano lessons, Church and Sunday roast dinners, how did this very English young girl eventually become an authoress on her journey to Islam? “You couldn’t grow up more naïve than I was about Islam” admits Lucy nonchalantly. She tells me how she had probably never even heard of it as a faith and how Muslims had no impact on her life at all. But all that was to change, when Lucy met her first Muslim at the age of 16. “I couldn’t believe that anybody would think differently to me. But I met this 17 year old Muslim boy who directly challenged my views.” Together with the new Muslim acquaintance, Lucy would study the Qur’an and ask questions about Islam. Yet when school was over, the dialogue stopped.

In the gap years between school and university however, Lucy found herself drawn to the faith again, because, she says, “there is something so special about Islam”. A brave, solitary visit to Regents Park Mosque in London later led to a trip to Israel where she had some very pertinent encounters. “I was invited into Palestinians’ homes – me, a complete stranger. Once I was invited along with another volunteer to dinner by a couple who had two chickens, and they killed one of them for us. They never saw us before and never saw us since. It was completely genuine hospitality.” But of course along with the ying came the yang to balance out the experiences – whilst travelling in Egypt Lucy had a fair bit of unwanted attention as a white tourist. Yet all this made her ever more keen to find out what Islam was all about.

“As a child, I’d been brought up with all the Bible stories,” recounts Lucy. “I knew about Jonah and the Whale and Noah and his Ark but I never made any connection between them. As I learnt more and more about Prophet Muhammad’s life, peace be upon him, I couldn’t deny that he was a Prophet. It made me understand that every single Prophet sent by God carried the same message and that he was logically the last one in a series.”

Meanwhile back at home, was all normal in middle England? Lucy’s formulating faith thoughts somehow did not escape her astute father. Picture this:  a big family dinner complete with wine to accompany the meal, and the only one drinking a glass of coke was Lucy. “I hear Muslims think it has some alcohol in it” her father remarked, to which everybody laughed. “I have no idea why he made that comment. I’m terrible at keeping a straight face; I went bright red and that didn’t help my case at all.” Lucy had in fact embraced Islam at university while living away from home. But she couldn’t hide it for long. Though she managed stolen moments to pray, she would interrupt her prayers mid-bow whenever she heard her father’s footsteps on the stair. But she was soon discovered, especially since her little brother decided to join her in praying, placing a tea towel on his head.

The reaction from her parents? The problem lay not in the belief, but in the beverage. And the meat. “We didn’t discuss the theological aspect. The only way it affected them was that I didn’t eat pork and I didn’t drink alcohol,” Lucy explains, almost diffidently. “At that point I wasn’t wearing a scarf so it wasn’t obvious. My mum was quite confused about why I wanted to change my faith, but she was relieved at least I wasn’t joining a Hare Krishna group.”

Another change was also on the cards. Three years after meeting her first Muslim and only a month before she became Muslim, Lucy met Julian again. He had telephoned, asking her to be the fourth in a group of friends on an Inter-railing trip around Europe. During the trip, Lucy was learning Surah Fatiha; Julian helped her. “We just stepped off this train in Madrid and he said ‘I think we should get married’. I replied, ‘Yes we should.’ We always knew that our values were compatible before, but that it would never go anywhere because we had different faiths. Now we realised that along with our values, our actual beliefs were coming together as well.”

So it was at the age of 19 that Lucy was married, with a dowry of £26 in the form of a Qur’an. It was a simple ceremony, conducted from her university room. No parents, no friends, just witnesses. Lucy admits it “wasn’t a very English thing to do”. While Julian’s parents knew of the marriage, Lucy was yet to tell hers, but then again, she tells me, they would not have accepted it as valid. There was however to be an English wedding complete with a white dress two years later. It was also the day Lucy decided to wear the hijab.

She describes the wedding itself as a “whole series of compromises” and was not without its fair share of comedy moments – a staple feature of her book too. First, the imam for the wedding dropped out, prompting Lucy’s father to say ‘Oh, I’ll be the imam’, followed by Lucy and Julian finding another imam who turned up in full gear – dressed head to toe in a red and white turban and robed in a thobe. While Lucy feared he was looking a bit too ‘foreign’, her mother and friends were delighted as he was “just what they expected”.

It was also a day of deep significance. While Lucy compromised with wearing the English bridal veil for the ceremony, it was afterwards that she donned the hijab. “It was a day where I felt that I was leaving my parents and could make my own decisions for myself,” she says with conviction.

We pause here to take a meaningful sip of tea, now lukewarm.  Along with another round of freshly brewed tea, I ask Lucy about the next phase in life – motherhood. It was a new beginning in more than one way. “It’s one thing for your child to become Muslim but when you’re carrying it down in generations it’s something deeper. My parents were concerned about what I’d call this child. My mother said ‘You’re not going to call it Saddam are you?’ From then on, it became a family joke. When the child was born, they’d call and ask ‘How is Saddam doing?’ I’d reply ‘Saddam’s doing well’. She was in fact named Safiyya-Imogen. “I would have given her an English first name but we thought an Arabic first name would help her integrate more within Muslim communities.”

But even Safiyya’s name it seems didn’t save her from a term of being fed ham and gammon at school – the dinner ladies assumed she was Christian. When one of the staff, a friend of Lucy’s, realised and questioned it, the dinner lady on duty replied ‘She’s not Muslim, she’s white. All the Muslims are over there’ pointing at brown people. Lucy was mortified. “Even my son asked me recently ‘Was I born Christian, mummy?’ I asked him why he thought that and he said ‘because I’ve got blond hair and my Muslim friend said I must have been born a Christian and become a Muslim later’. He’s only six now, he must have thought he’d done some early conversion.”

I ask Lucy if this is a concern for her – the issue of identity among her children. “I think we should give them the tools to cope with it. My daughter doesn’t like to be different so I’m trying to surround her with a mixture of people – white children of converts like her, Muslims from other backgrounds, and plenty of non-Muslims. I’m just trying to open her eyes to the fact that we are all different in our own way. The challenge is for us to be able to bring children up as Muslim so they can function anywhere in the world. The faith is in the heart. It’s strong. I haven’t got there yet, but Insha-Allah, I’m working on it.”

Lucy herself has come up against some interesting challenges, not least when she was vetoed off a mosque committee. But let’s get warmed up with her initial joining and the instant fatwa. Lucy had moved to Woking after her marriage and was keen to get involved in the activities of the historic Shah Jehan mosque, the first purpose built mosque in the whole of North Western Europe. Yet this towering legacy did not quite lend its noble stature to its then devoted committee members, whose enthusiasm to have Lucy on their team didn’t quite match their new member’s. She was the only woman on the committee, and being a non-Pakistani didn’t help the situation. “My life on the mosque committee was very brief. They produced an instant fatwa that I had to sit a metre away from everybody else. They produced it in Urdu and had to translate it.” A warm welcome to be sure. Even when the she suggested opening up the mosque to non-Muslims more where they could all bond over a cup of tea, it wasn’t quite a piece of cake.

Yet Lucy persevered, placing her efforts in promoting a “thinking madrassa” where children could do more than only recite the Qur’an. A big event involving many other madrassas was about to take place, and her group of three to five year olds were to have their moment of glory in front of all the parents. “The first little three year old came up with a picture of the sun and said God made the sun, the next one came up and said God made the moon. Then the third one came up, wearing whiskers and declared God made dogs. The whole hall could have heard a pin drop. Then there were mutterings in Urdu. The three year old was hauled of the stage. The husband was telling his wife, ‘How could you let our son embarrass us by having whiskers in the mosque?’” Needless to say Lucy was in the dog house.

While the mosque eviction was out of her hands, the young buccaneer was not disheartened from building up her community from just outside her doorstep. After making an effort in her new neighbourhood, Lucy has learnt how important a simple knock on a neighbour’s door can be. “It literally can be that knock at the door that could be the start of a friendship. I feel that the way to break down prejudices and fear of the unknown is by making ourselves known. If we all knew our neighbours, it would make such a big difference.” After years of building up a sense of community however, it was time for Lucy’s next big step in life – moving to another continent.

“Life was going so well. After ten years of living on the same road, I was leaving for South Africa.” It was a world apart from Woking and being on the Queen’s Jubilee street committee. “At first it was very hard to adjust. Beggars at the traffic lights, and people trying to sell you things all over the place. In order to get out of your garage, you had to get through your garage and then get through the next gate in order to get onto the road. At my old house I had 70 keys. It used to take me an hour to lock up at sunset.” But Lucy made the transition to belong. With her family now part of a vibrant community, she finds being Muslim in South Africa “refreshing”. She has lately become involved with Islamic Relief on their orphans project, and has the opportunity to work alongside nasheed artist Zain Bhikha who leads creative workshops.

It was during her time in South Africa that writing a book was first suggested to her by a friend. “It literally came out of the fact that I had the time and somebody just suggested it. The fact that I wasn’t in England has actually been positive because unfortunately the majority of the headlines in the UK are negative. I wanted to write a light hearted book about integrating. Somehow I found it easier being in a different country. The timing worked. I had the mental space and physical space to write about my experiences.”

“Welcome to Islam: A Convert’s Tale” skims through the stories and moments that have defined Lucy’s life thus far. “I didn’t just want to write a book about conversion, it is more about what happens after that, I wanted it to be much more about the reality of living everyday life as a Muslim convert. For me, the book is a plea for both tolerance and respect for our differences.” Lucy’s natural humour is what carries the reader through the book, as she says, “If you can share a laugh together, the barriers instantly come down.” I ask who it wouldn’t appeal to. “Most probably not someone who would be massively offended to see a three year old bring a dog mask into a mosque,” she grins.

At the book’s initial launch amongst the Muslim community at the Living Islam festival 2008, what meant most to Lucy was that her parents were there to share it. “To me this was my two worlds coming together physically. I get emotional when I think about it even now. During my speech, when I told the audience how special it was for me to have my parents there, I completely broke down. Afterwards my father said how proud he was and explained that we are on paths that are different but parallel. That meant so much to me.  I really loved and appreciated what he said.” Lucy’s eyes momentarily glisten with the recollection, the soft contours of her scarf delineating the tiny creases that break out from a fond smile.

The past certainly has been a fascinating story, but what of the future? “For me the future is really uncertain because from next year I don’t know what country I will be in. But I do know that Allah is there for me wherever I am.”

Everyone has their own story. This is Lucy’s. It may not be an overwhelmingly grand or even shocking affair, but it’s as real and as honest as you can get – a sincere invitation to hear one Muslim’s tale. So there you have it…Tea, anyone?

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in February 2009, Issue 29.