Journey to Islam—the Story of an American Revert
By: Camille Paldi
It was the spring of 2008 and I had recently qualified as a lawyer in New South Wales, Australia, after having completed an LL.M. in International Law at the University of Sydney, a Juris Doctor in Law at the University of Melbourne, and an online graduate diploma in International Legal Practice from the College of Law Australia and United Kingdom Alliance course, which led me to London to take multiple legal exams. I was transiting with a several months’ stay in Honolulu, Hawaii, studying photography and Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii. I also had secured work at the East West Center in Honolulu and a stint at the Hawaii state legislature with Representative Joey Manahan during the legislative session. As I was pondering my next move, I connected to the newly created Facebook, where I made a lot of “friends” located in the Middle East. Several men had been quite flirtatious on the social media platform, which sparked my interest in traveling to the region. I decided that I was going to fly to Dubai alone from Hawaii and try to find my first job as a lawyer. Little did I know of the wild adventures that awaited me, which would unravel in the next several years around the Middle East and the world, including travel to Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
While in Hawaii at this time, I decided to seek help from the past trauma of abuse from my older half-brother, Peter Pomponi, while growing up in Hawaii, California, and Oregon. He was so physically and emotionally abusive on a daily basis for around twenty years that I ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a variety of anxiety disorders among other things. For the moment, the psychiatrist who I was seeing in Honolulu, Dr. Hannah Kim, diagnosed me with PTSD and anxiety and prescribed me Klonopin. This was the worst thing that could have happened to me besides being a trauma victim, as it marked the beginning of my slow decline in mental and physical health. Abuse victims often unknowingly go to psychiatrists and submit themselves to further abuse in terms of harmful drug therapies that actually cause an imbalance in the brain and inadvertently transform the otherwise healthy victim into a psychiatric patient as well as into a completely different person. I am a firm advocate of never taking psychiatric drugs voluntarily unless forced to do so in a psychiatric hospital. The psychiatrist, through psychiatric drugs, actually makes the victim sick, creating a chemical imbalance in the victim’s brain and thereby creating a need for further medications, trapping the patient into a lifetime cycle of dangerous drug dependency and life-threatening side effects and further related diagnoses as the body slowly succumbs to and crumbles under the plethora of side effects that ravage the entire body.
As I landed in Dubai, I felt a sense of relief of being so far away from my family—a family that never protected me from the abuse of my elder half-brother and often denied it or justified it with lame excuses such as that my real father had bullied him as a child. I found the latter excuse false, ridiculous, and biased.
I checked into my hotel in Deira, Dubai, and immediately began a job search, sending out my CV and inquiries to all law firms in Dubai. I obtained an American Business Council Directory and wrote to all members who were lawyers. I got an interview with Ali Al-Hashimi, the managing partner of Global Advocates and Legal Consultants in Dubai, UAE. The interview went well and I got a job as an “associate lawyer” in a “local” law firm, which meant that it was run by Emiratis and, for the particular firm, was staffed with all Arab or regional staff. In fact, at the time of hiring, I was the only Western person in the mid-size office of about thirty people, of course mainly men.
Now halfway around the world from home, I was ecstatic as I found a way to jump-start my career in the legal field as well as fund my Middle Eastern adventure. I located my first studio apartment in Deira, Dubai, near a mosque. I had never heard the call to prayer before, and now I was subjected to it five times a day on a daily basis. I told Ali that it sounded like honey dripping into my ears. The adhan or call to prayer often strikes non-Muslims as beautiful and stops one in his or her tracks no matter where they are or what they are doing. One feels compelled to listen and wonders at what chord was struck within themselves and on what plane as it seemed beyond the daily normal comprehension of the secular world, which a large percentage of the world is born into. As one discovers Islam, one realizes it is a call to submit to and pray to Allah or God, which chimes five times a day every day at all hours of the morning, day, and night.
I soon started my office duty working six days a week in my new role as associate. I was warmly welcomed by the three partners, Ali, Ayman, and Hassan, all Emirati nationals and Arab men. Their office was located on the edge of Deira bordering central Dubai in al-Garhoud. The office was on the second floor of a two-story building, directly across from a mosque and near the Emirates Airlines Training Center and Gym. I began a routine of attending work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and soon joined the Emirates Airline Gym and an evening Arabic class at the World Trade Centre. I noticed that Arabic was full of words referencing God such as Allah, Alhamdulillah or “Thanks to God,” and Jazakh Allah kheir, or “May God reward you with goodness.” This deepened my curiosity and thirst for Islam, which seemed so natural. People who convert to Islam are referred to as “reverts,” as Muslims believe that everyone is born in submission to Allah or God and that everyone is born a Muslim. After being distracted by the dunya or the material world, some people find their way back to Islam, and these people are considered reverts.
Ali would often gift me books to read about Arabs and the Arab world and culture and Islam. We even read the Qur’an together, and he answered any questions I had about the Holy Book. It appeared to me that the Qur’an was the last chapter of the story of the Holy Books, including the Torah and the Bible. It eventually made complete sense as many of the characters and the story and themes of all the Holy Books seemed to complement and complete each other. In fact, I recommend for people to read the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an to gain a complete understanding of the story of the Holy Books in entirety. At first, I was not convinced that Jesus was just a prophet of God and not the son of God, as I was ingrained with this belief from birth. But, eventually, it made sense to me that it was not possible for God to have a son, and I accepted Islam with the shahada or the phrase which one states to accept Islam. The shahada is the central statement of faith in Islam, recited ceremonially by new converts, and consisting of an affirmation of the uniqueness of God and of Muhammad as God’s prophet (The Free Dictionary).
لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله
There is no god but God.
lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh
IPA: [læː ʔɪˈlæː.hæ ˈʔɪl.læ‿ɫˈɫɑːh]
مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله
muḥammadun rasūlu llāh
IPA: [mʊˈħæm.mæ.dʊn ræˈsuː.lʊ‿ɫˈɫɑːh]
Muhammad is the messenger of God (Wikipedia).
In fact, Jesus is mentioned more times in the Qur’an than the Bible, but as a prophet of God only and not the son of God. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the last messenger of God.
I noticed that at the time of the call to prayer, often, all the men in the office would gather in the hallway and pray together in congregation rather than going across the street to the mosque. I would watch in awe and wonder what in the world they were doing. I had never been exposed to Islamic prayer before. It seemed so foreign and alien to me at the time. I was mesmerized by the activity of so many men prostrating and praying in unison together in the worship of and submission to Allah or God. I also noticed men leaving the office during the workday several times a day to go and pray in the mosque in addition to such things as the lunch break. Can you imagine large corporations in America allowing employees to leave the office several times a day to go and pray? Life in the Middle East and other parts of the world revolves around the five prayer times rather than a strict workday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with one lunch break. In fact, people are more productive in this manner of living, as well as mentally and physically healthier than their secular counterparts, including Americans and Europeans.
Islamic prayer actually has many health benefits, including the stretching of all internal organs, which leads to the increase in blood flow to all parts of the body and the release of endorphins to the brain, which leads to increased productivity and acts as an aid in digestion. Imagine getting up from your desk periodically during the morning, day, and evening, every day and stretching your body in various yoga poses in salutation to God. Imagine the health benefits! Not only would one feel mentally, physically, and spiritually refreshed, but one would be motivated to carry out one’s purpose in life and lead a productive day. Washing yourself before prayer, or wudhu, acts to purify the body before prayer, but also works to prevent diseases. One of the most refreshing acts of wudhu that I found was to rinse the nostrils with water and essentially flush them out in a cleanse. This acts to clear the nostrils of germs and prevent diseases.
I remember my first three Ramadans in the UAE and wondered why many restaurants were closed during fasting hours. I continued to eat and drink in private in the office. At that time, fasting for thirty days in a row seemed like an impossible task. Even one day of fasting seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. I had never fasted a day in my life before reverting to Islam. After you get the hang of it, it really is like only skipping lunch with an early breakfast and late dinner depending on the time of sunset. One of my coworkers from the Sudan asked me, “Doesn’t it feel different during Ramadan?” And I remember that I noticed a special feeling that descended, the atmosphere of calm and tranquility that covered us like a blanket of comfort and hope. Fasting has many health benefits, including the regulation of blood-sugar levels, the burning of fat and excess weight, the re-boosting of the immune system, and physical and mental rejuvenation among other things. There is a vast wisdom behind submitting to Allah as He has our best intentions in mind, spiritually, mentally, and physically.
Through Islam, I learned not to eat pork, as the pig is a filthy, disease-carrying animal that eats dead flesh. Furthermore, halal meat, or specified meats slaughtered in the Islamically prescribed method, should be consumed to preserve ideal human health. In addition, one should pay attention to the specified halal foods as mentioned in the Qur’an and sunnah or the actions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Sunnah is the body of literature which discusses and prescribes the traditional customs and practices of the Islamic community, both social and legal, often but not necessarily based on the verbally transmitted record of the teachings, deeds, sayings, and silent permissions (or disapprovals) of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) (Wikipedia).
One should also avoid alcohol, as it is a dangerous intoxicant that leads to the disruption of the fabric of society, the family, and the deterioration of the health and well-being of the individual. Gambling is also a dangerous activity which destroys society, as it is a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the other party’s expense.
As I would sit in church service on Sundays and in my frequent trips to the Ayurveda clinic in Bur Dubai, I continued to hear the call of the adhan encouraging my soul to return to Islam. As I continued for three years in Dubai working as an associate in Global Advocates and Legal Consultants, I contemplated and studied Islam alone and with others to the point where I had a firm understanding of the religion, yet I was still a Christian. I continued to struggle with my mental health all the while still taking Klonopin.
After three years, I decided to pursue an LL.M. in US law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2011/2012. It was during this academic year in which I took the shahada and finally reverted to Islam alhamdulillah. I decided to stop taking the Klonopin after five years of consuming it on a daily basis and rely on Islam rather than Western psychiatry for my mental well-being. Unfortunately, my mental health continued to deteriorate after this.
In 2013/2014, I enrolled in the MA in Islamic Finance program at Durham University in the UK and obtained the degree after one year of rigorous study and exams in conventional and Islamic finance. At the same time, I completed the UK Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTT). I returned to Dubai for another three years, where I worked in the promotion of Islamic finance around the world. During this time, I believe as a result of taking Klonopin for five years and creating a chemical imbalance in my brain combined with a lifetime of abuse by my half-brother, I developed schizoaffective disorder, a form of schizophrenia. I thought that by relying on Islam, I could lift my dependency on the American psychiatric model, but in reality, I had sealed my fate the day I started taking Klonopin in 2008. I would forever be in the grips of harmful psychiatric drug therapies, which are meant to shorten one’s lifespan by a considerable number of years.
Some of the things that drew me to Islam were the fact that men are considered the maintainers of women and their health and well-being, and the high position of women in Islam complete with maintenance and inheritance rights. I also liked the wudhu and hygiene and the fact that after using the bathroom, one cleaned oneself with water rather than paper. I could also relate to the fact that life is a test, with good and bad deeds weighed on the Day of Judgment to determine one’s entrance to Jannah or Heaven. It all seemed to make perfect sense.
The five pillars of Islam include (1) shahada or reciting the Muslim profession of faith; (2) salat or prayer; (3) zakat or paying alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor; (4) sawm or fasting; (5) hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca.
My journey to Islam began with one brave soul stepping on a flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2008, and continues to this day as I study and contemplate Islam and the Qur’an.