I first met Natalya* in my Urdu beginners’ class last September. We went round the class and one by one we outlined why we wanted to study Urdu. ‘My boyfriend is Pakistani’, ‘my husband is Pakistani’, ‘my boyfriend is Pakistani’… it got to me: ‘erm… I went to Pakistan and thought Urdu sounded quite nice, so I thought I’d give it a go’. At that point, Natalya was another face in the crowd, learning Urdu to speak to her husband’s family. But as the months went on, our fellow students dropped like flies (the one man in the class lasted just a couple of lessons before he was scared off by all the oestrogen) and by the end of the course, there were just four of us. It was then that I started to get to know Natalya a bit better and I was fascinated by her story; Natalya is Russian but converted to Islam last year.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been pestering her to let me tell her story, and I wasn’t sure if she was very keen. We both found it hard to meet, given that we’re working and fasting at the same time and, in addition, where do you meet when you’re not eating or drinking?! But when we met earlier today, Natalya was full of energy. I barely had to ask any questions, the story just started bubbling out of her. I think perhaps it’s one she hasn’t had a chance to tell many people. So now you, privileged readers, will be some of the first to hear her story. This is an edited version of the conversation we had just a few hours ago:
Me: Tell me again what made you convert, because I really liked that story. It wasn’t just meeting your husband, was it? It was more than that.
Natalya: I was never able to find a religion that could fit my needs, that could suit me. In Russia we have the Russian Orthodox Church, which is fine, but I found it very depressing. You go in the church and you see a very sad looking Jesus, with blood everywhere, and it’s all about suffering. I tried the Catholic Church and went to some Catholic classes, but it just didn’t go anywhere.
Me: What did they teach you?
Natalya: I don’t really remember, I just remember there was a very bad-tempered priest! There were some stories and some history… it just didn’t really resonate with me. I liked the music, but the whole issue of eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus, it just didn’t resonate with me. I did look into being pagan for a bit (laughs), but I couldn’t really engage with that either. But I never really looked into Islam because of all the bad press, so I never even considered it.
Me: And you didn’t have Muslim friends or anything?
Natalya: I had a friend of mine who married a Muslim, but most Russian Muslims aren’t really practising. There was a girl in my class who was Muslim, but again she was really Muslim by birth. So I didn’t really know anything about Islam apart from what I heard on the news. And then I met this handsome guy, just down the road from here! We met at an art gallery. A friend of mine is an artist and had his exhibition there, so invited me, and my husband is interested in art.
Me: A sexy artist?!
Natalya: (Rolls her eyes). Hmmm… yes! So I sidled up to him and asked what he thought of the artwork. It was the perfect excuse to talk! We started talking and got on really well, we were laughing. When it was time to go home he asked for my phone number and I gave it to him. We arranged to meet again but I was unwell so cancelled it. We rearranged and again I had a headache but I thought it would be bad to postpone again, so I went. We went to a restaurant and that’s when we had a proper chance to talk and I found out that he was a proper Muslim and… I was like… well…
Me: Were you a bit put off?
Natalya: Mmm, yeah. Because to be honest, I’d never got on so well with anybody in my life before and we got on so well together, it was unbelievable. But I thought (pulls a face), ‘Hmm… he’s Muslim… hmmm’. Even then, on the first date, I said: ‘there’s no way I’m wearing a headscarf’. He said, ‘nobody’s asking you to!’. And I remember that there were some Muslim girls sitting at a table, all wearing headscarves, and he said, ‘you see them, wearing headscarves? They do it out of their own choice’, and I said, ‘Yeah, right!’. That was our first date in February last year. We were on and off in touch, because I really liked him but I wasn’t really sure about him being a Muslim and I was finishing my Master’s as well so I had another excuse! Then in May, he suggested meeting again.
Me: Oh, bless! Persistent!
Natalya: Yes, that’s the other thing. If he weren’t that persistent it probably would have fallen apart! And when we met, we got on so well again, and it was so much fun and after a few days I thought, ‘well, that’s it! Muslim or not!’. I was so in love with him, and I wanted to make an effort.
Before I met Omar (my husband), I did a translation of a book by a Russian Muslim author. At the book launch, some of the Muslim community had brought some copies of the Quran in Russian. So coincidentally, I had a copy of the Quran in Russian already at home.
So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it a go’. I started reading. As you know, it’s not an easy read. And reading your blog, I really get what you’re talking about because after a while I thought, ‘all I’m reading about is how I’m going to burn in Hell!’. And I remember talking to Omar about it and telling him this. Omar said to me: ‘do you believe in God?’. I said, ‘yes’, and he said, ‘so it’s fine, you’re a believer!’. ‘Do you do good things?’. ‘Yes’. ‘So you’re not going to burn in Hell!’. But that’s all I could read. I put it back on the shelf and I said, ‘that’s it, I can’t do it anymore’. Later on he said that he was a bit disappointed when he heard that.
Then Ramadan came along last year and he told me there are special blessings for finishing the Quran in Ramadan. I thought to myself, ‘I will not be beaten by this book! I will finish it!’. I don’t know if you’ve come across this passage in the Quran, it says something about it being up to God who he decides to lead and who he won’t lead, so I thought maybe that’s why I didn’t finish it before.
Me: Yes, I was reading something similar today. It said something along the lines of asking the prophet why he wasted his time on the non-believers, because if God wanted to, he could make them believe, but he doesn’t. But I find that difficult to understand. Because if God supposedly is merciful, and he has it in his power to make you believe, why would he not make everyone believe and stop them all from burning in Hell? I find that difficult to get my head around.
Natalya: But I think your friend [in the blog comments] is right that to burn in Hell you have to be quite a heavy sinner.
Me: There go my Friday nights!
Natalya: (laughs). But what I like about Islam is that it’s positive, it encourages you to be good. It’s like a points system, you get cookie points for doing good things! In Christianity it seems to be all about sin, being born as a sinner, being a sinner because you’re a woman. But in Islam if you’re good, it’s rewarded.
So anyway, Ramadan started and Omar and I would meet every evening and go for a walk in the park, and he would be like… ‘argh, I need a bench!’. We’d go to a Turkish restaurant near my house so he could break his fast and he was really impressed because I had bought dates for him.
And I finished the Quran. He mentioned to me that there was a special night [many Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to the prophet on the 27th night of Ramadan], where there were special prayers. I thought about it, and I was really scared – petrified, to be honest – but I told him: ‘I want to go [to the mosque] too’.
Me: What were you scared of?
Natalya: At first I thought that Muslims were a bit… not unfriendly, but very serious. That I would be frowned upon for not doing something the right way. Again, in the Russian Orthodox Church, you should also cover your hair and if you don’t, you’ll be seriously frowned upon. I thought it would be similar. I was worried that somebody would figure out that I’m not a Muslim, and say ‘what are you doing here?’! I didn’t know what to expect, so I was really scared. But I still told him that I wanted to come. He said that he wasn’t sure if I was ready yet, he didn’t want to put me off Islam altogether, and that made me think there was something to be scared of. Anyway, I wore my long skirt and watched a youtube video on how to do the hijab and met him after work.
I had a little silver cross and I wore it as protection on the day before going to the Mosque and then took it off before entering.
Me: Like letting go of one religion and on to the next.
Natalya: Well I was never baptised, so I’ve never technically been Christian. We got the bus to Finsbury Park mosque and got there early. I took my copy of the Quran to read, but I hadn’t realised that you can use your phone in the mosque, you can read, eat, it’s very relaxed. People looked at me a bit curiously, probably because I’m so white with blue eyes.
Me: Did your husband tell you how to pray beforehand? I think that’s what would make me nervous.
Natalya: He tried to tell me what to say, but I couldn’t take it in at all. I said, ‘I’m never going down on my knees!’. He got down on the floor in my room to demonstrate and I just kept giggling! He said, ‘don’t worry, just follow everybody else’, and he’s right, it was quite easy. The other thing he said was, ‘just try to open your heart, be receptive’.
Me: Were you going thinking that conversion was a possibility, or were you just going out of curiosity?
Natalya: No, I didn’t think about conversion. I just wanted to share this experience with him, because it was important to him.
Me: Kind of like me and Fatima. Ha ha! This is where it starts. My parents will read that and go, ‘Oh my God!’.
Natalya: (Laughs) So that’s where it started. The other thing I remember was that there were children running around like crazy, even during the prayers. There were two Muslim women shouting at each other and swearing. The atmosphere was much more relaxed than I thought it would be. I was worried that everyone would be stony-faced, but it’s much more relaxed.
I started praying and in the breaks I read my Quran. I read a bit about having four wives, which made me laugh. But I was really trying to feel something. I always believed in God, in energy. But I really felt something.
Me: What did you feel?
Natalya: A fuzzy feeling. It’s difficult to describe. It was as if I had so much energy that it was flowing out of me. I felt like I was in my body but also around it. At the end of the prayer, during the last recitation, you have to lift your finger. I don’t know what the significance is. I thought I’d give it a go, and I just felt energy shooting out of it. It was amazing. We were there for three hours, but it went so quickly. He saw me safely home, all nice and halal!
The next morning, I woke up and I was sitting in my bed and I felt really light. I could feel my body, but I could feel outside of it as well. I sound like a psychic or something, like a crazy person! I’d had some problems in my life – I don’t want to go into it, but pretty bad stuff – and it kept hanging over me. But that first morning I felt free of my old baggage. It was so odd. I thought: ‘what’s going on?’. I felt like a new person, pretty much, as if whatever had been weighing on me was gone. I opened the Quran on a random page and the ayat I read said that when you come to God, he will lift your burden for you. That’s when I realised, this was it, this was what I had been looking for. A million people could tell you: ‘this is what’s right’, but unless you experience it, you can’t know.
Me: What did your husband say?
Natalya: At first he wasn’t certain if I was serious or not. But then when I saw him I said that I wanted to convert. To say that he was pleased is not really the right word, because it wasn’t so much for his benefit as for my own. But he said, if you want to convert, then we should get married.
Me: Why did he think that though? Because when you weren’t married he was happy for things to continue without you being married, right?
Natalya: Well we were already discussing marriage by that time, but we hadn’t set a date. It’s more that when you convert you get the chance to start again and your sins are washed away.
Me: Like starting afresh.
Natalya: Yeah, you see what I mean. But he’s really, really nice. He’s just so genuine. The more I get to know him, the more I love him.
Me: Gosh, I don’t know about Islam but you’re starting to make me believe in love!
Natalya: So I’d decided that I wanted to convert. He found this little Islamic book shop near Baker Street and they could do it. We arranged the date, 13th August last year. Ramadan was later last year so it wasn’t long after that. It wasn’t very long at all between deciding to convert and doing it. I needed two Muslim witnesses, so my husband came with a friend. I was nervous! The man talked to me about Islam and the five pillars of Islam, and being a good Muslim, and I was like (nods head vigorously), ‘Yeah, yeah!’. Then you have to repeat lots of things.
Me: In English or in Arabic?
Natalya: In both. There is a long bit in Arabic. And then they congratulated me and gave me a certificate! Because I want to go to Mecca, obviously, but to go there you have to have a visa and it’s only for Muslims, so I would have to prove that I’m a Muslim, so the certificate comes in handy. I took the Muslim name Layla.
Me: I didn’t realise that. Do you have to take a name?
Natalya: No. Some people say it’s obligatory. I think there may be a hadith about it, about taking nice names. It’s just nice and I really like the name.
Skipping ahead a bit, I naively thought that once I’d converted I’d never have any problems in my life again. That’s not true. You still have problems and upsets in your life, but faith does help you deal with them.
Anyway, going back, I’d converted. My family were saying, ‘you’re not going to convert for him, are you?’. I still think they don’t believe that I did it for myself.
Me: Are they understanding about it?
Natalya: They’re still convinced that I only did it to marry Omar. They think I did it to make him happy, not that I genuinely believe in it. Also I think they think I’ll get over it.
Me: Like it’s a phase? Like you’re a teenager.
Natalya: Yeah! That’s how things are, but they’ve accepted it. Reading your blog, you talk about your parents being understanding that you’re fasting. That’s not the case for me. They don’t even know that I fast and I’m not going to tell them. My Mum thinks I just do it with Omar, not the whole day. She doesn’t understand it. It does upset me a little bit.
Me: Are they religious?
Natalya: No. They’re not atheist – they believe that there’s something there but they wouldn’t necessarily call it God.
Me: I guess at least they accept it, they just don’t really try to understand. Is that right?
Natalya: No, they don’t.
Me: I think it’s really hard for parents. I think my parents would probably be the same. I think they’d be really surprised if I converted to Islam, I suppose because your parents have seen you grow up for your whole life. And for my parents if I were then to have this drastic departure from how they’d known me all that time, it would be a real shock.
Natalya: Mmm. But on the other hand, nothing has really changed. I haven’t changed. Well, I don’t eat pork, and in Russia they eat a lot of pork!
Me: Do you eat halal meat?
Natalya: I’m not that worried about halal. I have to eat gluten free, so if I did that and halal I would starve! I would be fasting for twelve months a year!
Me: But there is one big change, of course. Having gone from saying, ‘No hijab for me, I’ll never wear the hijab!’, you’re now wearing the hijab. So what happened?
Natalya: You need to try it. At first, I kind of did it to please my husband. That day when we went to the mosque, I put it on and you should have seen how he looked at me, with so much love and admiration! He was almost speechless!
Me: But that’s interesting, because you said that you didn’t convert for him, but do you think that the hijab is mostly because of his reaction?
Natalya: No, that’s just how it started. I started wearing it before I converted. Suddenly you’re part of a community. When you don’t wear the hijab, nobody cares about you. If you wear the hijab, most people still ignore you but Muslim people notice, they say hello to you.
Me: I can completely understand that. It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to ask you about it. For example, on Tuesday I went to a Latin American concert and obviously the majority of people were Latin American. It started at eight so I hadn’t broken my fast yet. It got to ten past nine and I knew I needed to break my fast, but when I went to leave, I realised you weren’t supposed to. I said to them, ‘I’m fasting, so I need to leave’. They just looked at me completely shocked, this white girl with the blue eyes, like you say, and you can see them thinking, ‘what do I do?’. They were nice about it, but they were just obviously shocked, and I could tell that they wanted to ask, ‘are you really Muslim?’ and I think particularly what they wanted to say was: ‘but you’re not wearing a hijab’. I don’t feel like you have to wear the hijab to be a Muslim. So I was a bit defiant, I didn’t even tell them about the blog, I just said, ‘yep, I’m fasting!’. But I can understand that the hijab would give you that sense of community, a sense of belonging.
Natalya: For me, it also makes me feel safe. I was always aware of people looking at me. I don’t like it when men stare at you. Now: solved! No-one ever looks at you! (Laughs).
Me: No more cat-calling and whistling in the street!
Natalya: People do treat you with more respect. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.
Me: I think that’s one of the things that I don’t like as much though. Not that I mind when people do want to wear it. But I suppose when I’ve spoken to some of my Muslim friends and ask them why they cover up, they say that otherwise men say things to them. I feel that there’s a slight attitude of victim-blaming in that. I’m not going to cover myself up because men are inappropriate in the street. They’re the ones that should learn to behave in a decent way towards women.
Natalya: Because you’re very strong! I’m not like that. I don’t wear the hijab at work. I wear it to and from the office, but not at work.
Me: Do they know that you’ve converted?
Natalya: They’re starting to find out. They thought it was just for my husband, but now a few know that I’m fasting as well. They say, ‘I wouldn’t do that for my other half!’. The office was cold in winter and I put my scarf on and I got some not very nice comments about it, like, ‘why are you wearing it?’.
Me: Do you think they were just curious?
Natalya: No, it really wasn’t very nice. They said it was ‘excessive’. I work in the construction industry and I’m a woman, I’m not British, all of these things are not great and then if I add a headscarf, it would be too much. My husband says I should be strong and I agree, but I’m not that strong. I told a girl about fasting and I was so shy, but she was Sikh and she was so nice and supportive.
Me: I was the reverse. I wanted to tell everyone. I wanted to feel part of something. I would stop random people like the person who packed my bag in Sainsbury’s and wish him ‘Ramadan Mubarak’! Luckily he was actually Muslim, but it was a good guess! He was Asian, but he could have been Hindu, he could have been atheist. I just wanted to know that I wasn’t alone doing it, which was hard because Fatima was away.
Natalya: Yes, so like you say, when I wear the hijab, more Muslims engage with you. Just little conversations.
Me: But I can understand why it would also make you feel self-conscious, because it gives you that instant marker of identity, either for good or bad. It reveals you as part of that community, but also for those people that don’t understand, it’s like, ‘oh, she’s wearing a hijab’.
Natalya: Yes. Like after what happened in Tunisia… not everyone in the office knows that I’m Muslim and I could hear the receptionist complaining about Muslims being terrorists and I thought, ‘If they knew that I was Muslim, they probably wouldn’t say that’. It might be whispers, which would be even worse.
Now, if I went for an interview, I would go in my headscarf, so that they would be prepared, because it’s how I feel more comfortable.
Me: And how have you found fasting?
Natalya: It’s nowhere near as bad as I thought. I think men do find it harder, not just because it’s longer, but because women are more accustomed to bodily stresses and pain.
Me: Do you think? It’s been making me quite ill!
Natalya: You should have seen my husband fasting. On the second day he looked like a ghost! So I was prepared for something similar but it didn’t happen. Women have periods and go through childbirth – I guess it makes you feel like Ramadan is nothing in comparison!
Also, your blog really helped. I didn’t fast for the first few days for ‘ladies’ reasons’ and I was debating whether to fast. I have to be on site a lot and travel, but luckily this month I’ve only had three site visits. I thought I would just try one day a week. I get a lot of migraines. The doctors say to drink a lot of water and eat regularly, but I haven’t had any headaches. And then I saw your blog, and I saw that it was doable. So I thought I would try it. On the third day you said it was easy-peasy!
Me: (I laugh). I don’t know how that happened! I think I just slept for a lot of it!
Natalya: One of the things I’ve found really hard is the lack of sleep. Sometimes I would go home and sleep and then get up again. But yes, so to finish my story, my husband and I then got married in September last year. People still think that I converted for him, but I didn’t: we were already planning to get married and as a Muslim man, he can marry a non-Muslim. If it were the other way round, it would be different. I converted because I wanted to.
So that’s Natalya’s story! I know it’s a bit of a long post, but I really enjoyed hearing it, so I thought that you would too.
By the time you are reading this, it will already be Eid! Eid Mubarak to all of my readers! I hope the Muslims among you have a lovely day with your friends and family, and that your time fasting makes you appreciate all of the things that you have today (not just the food, but the relationships too) just that little bit more.
I will post one last blog after Eid as a conclusion to the experience, so watch out for that. Until then, please remember to wish your friends and colleagues a very happy Eid!
*the names in this story have been changed in respect for the interviewee’s privacy.