Wednesday, September 20, 2017





 


From Islam to Christ– One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God.  By Derya Little, Ignatius Press, 2017.


From Islam to Christ is a personal memoir about the religious journey taken by Derya Little.  For various reasons, Little uses a pseudonym for herself and for most of people who feature in this book.  This is a conversion story, but it is also one woman’s autobiographical account of growing up, the personal effects of divorce on a family, her impressions on the history and culture of her native Turkey, and how faith can utterly transform someone’s life.


As the book opens, Little reflects on her life in America and how religion has completely reshaped her life.  In the opening scene, she waits at a garage for her car to be fixed, and she suddenly realizes just how different every aspect of her life is from her early twenties.


“Looking up from my book, I saw a big wooden crucifix that should have seemed out of place in the mostly metal garage, but Christ’s crucified figure did not appear to mind His surroundings at all.  I pondered the image that changed everything for me; then I smiled.  The reason for my amusement was that if my twenty-year-old self were to occupy my thirty-four-year-old body momentarily, and saw who I was, she would think I had gone insane.  The younger Derya did not drive, yet there I was waiting for my huge Honda van to be fixed.  She did not believe in marriage, yet I was waiting for the mechanic to finish, so that I could get back to my wonderful husband of six years.  A decade ago, Derya did not want any children, yet I was the mother of three beautiful and busy saint makers.  She had never traveled outside Turkey or been inside an airplane, yet I was living in a small mining town on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  


Most importantly, that Turkish young woman did not want anything to do with God, yet I was filled with gratitude and hope at the sight of a crucifix in a garage.  Little by little, I had traveled far, not only physical but also spiritually.  Thankfully, as wise Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings, “Not all who wander are lost.””


Little provides a poignant, heartfelt, and honest depiction of her childhood.  Her father was unfaithful to her mother, although he was reluctant to break up the marriage or to abandon his mistress.  As a result, Little, her brother, and her mother lived in very limited circumstances.  The lower social standing brought about by poverty led to many humiliations, and the breakup of her family led to all sorts of emotional and mental strains.  She writes:


“Soon after my parents went through separation and divorce, we slipped down the financial ladder.  Money became very scarce, as my mother had to pay the mortgage and feed us with only her meager retirement salary.  Seeing all my better-off friends wearing Levi’s 501 jeans and buying New Kids on the Block cassette tapes, which were expensive in Turkey, while I had only a battered old pair of shoes and a knock-off pair of jeans, made me feel as if there was no room for me in their world.  I felt neglected by my parents and patronized by my friends.”


Little does an excellent job of crafting a vivid and memorable verbal picture of her hometown in Turkey, along with the history of her homeland and the attitudes of various groups there.  Early in the book, she provides a brief overview of the history of modern Turkey, as well as her impressions on the public expectations of religion and the ways in which Islam is intertwined inside all of the social and cultural aspects of life in Turkey.  She notes that when Ataturk crafted the new nation, religion took a back seat in the public sphere, and yet being Muslim was considered being integral to being a member of society.  After outlining her birth nation’s history, Little summarizes the religious culture of the early decades of modern Turkey as follows:


“In this Islam-lite culture, women were not allowed to cover their hair in the Muslim fashion, nor could they wear the hijab.  No manner of religious apparel was allowed in public areas, and both men and women were to dress in appropriate European attire.  Laicism, a strict version of secularism that promoted the state’s dominance over religious affairs, was embraced, and slowly, but very effectively, religion’s impact in education and public affairs diminished.


Despite these shifts in the perception of religion in public life, however, being a Muslim remained an important aspect of being a Turk.  You were not supposed to be too Muslim, but you were not supposed to be anything else either.”


In recent years, secularization has been receding in many areas of Turkish life.  Little takes pains to point out how decent and kind many people she knew in Turkey were, but she also describes some of the growing fundamentalism in the country, and how Christianity and atheism are both anathema in some areas. 


By her teens, Little started to face a lot of doubt, and eventually drifted into outright atheism.  She notes how her own lack of belief and hostility towards many religious attitudes led to contempt for people who believed.  Little illustrates how religious belief and action can be bolstered by one’s social circles.  As she grew older, she found little groups of atheists who got together, talked about all sorts of issues, and sneered at believers.  


“In that dark room, slowly the unthinkable seeds of doubt were sown.  They were very small seeds at first– so small, in fact, that I was not willing to acknowledge them.  But my prayers became shorter and shorter.  They were said out of habit without any heart or belief that someone was hearing the incomprehensible Arabic words.  Then I started to find excuses to delay reading the Quran.  Either I was too busy with homework, or I was not ritually clean.  One Ramadan, I simply lied to my mother about fasting.  I would wake up before sunrise with her to eat and then pretend to fast while grownups were around.  Drinking water and having little snacks when nobody was looking became the way I fasted.  By no means had I left Islam, but my adherence became only nominal.  I was becoming one of the millions of Muslims in Turkey who did not observe the religion to which they claimed to belong, and I was content with that development.”


Perhaps some of the most poignant aspects of the book come her failed relationships before her conversion, as Little discusses how the problems with her boyfriends stemmed in part from the breakup of her parents’ marriage, and how the two abortions she had affected her mentally and spiritually.


Also particularly interesting are Little’s reflections on how history was taught to her.  In America, we often hear pundits say that Americans often do not hear enough about the dark side of their history, though in comparison to other countries (definitely not just Turkey– throughout Europe and Asia, there are countless examples of horrible atrocities and embarrassments that are simply hushed up, overlooked, or whitewashed with lots of pretty lies).  If we are to understand how other people around the world think about their own histories, we have to learn about how they are taught history.


“The Ottoman history that was taught to me in school was written from the perspective of the winners and doctored to make the centuries of Ottoman rule look just, fair, and prosperous.  My textbooks did not mention the slavery that was legal under Ottoman rule.  Unlike American children, Turkish students do not learn about the wrongdoings of their ancestors.  There is certainly no discussion of making reparations for past injustices or of moral lessons learned from history– other than never to trust infidels.”


The poignant, moving second half of the book is largely driven by how Little discovered Christianity and was slowly, yet inexorably drawn to it.  She met some Evangelical Christian missionaries, and originally tried to lead them to unbelief, before gradually and unexpectedly discovering her faith again.  Eventually, she travelled to England to pursue further studies, grew increasingly drawn to Catholicism, converted, met and fell in love with a fellow Catholic online, and eventually married and moved to America to start a new life.


 This is a particularly engrossing memoir, and one that provides a thorough and complex look at how religion and society are intertwined and what how faith can change people in all sorts of ways.


 

–Chris Chan