Welcome back! I just know you all have been holding your breath, eagerly awaiting Part 2. Or not. Ah well, here comes the exciting conclusion.
So there I am in NYC singing my little heart out and loving every minute. It was time to look for an agent. Lots of singers, lots of agents but I found one who seemed a little less jaded than most and sat down to negotiate a contract after my audition and acceptance. “Nice talent, nice package,” she said. “How do you feel about the ‘casting couch’?” Yikes. You’d think that was only in Hollywood and not the so-called highbrow profession of classical music. But it seems ‘that’s entertainment’ is exactly that: entertainment -no matter how you dress it up. I must have looked as aghast as I felt. She explained the reality of the matter that unless you were at the level of a Pavarotti, you would encounter such things as you made your way up the ladder. For me, much as I yearned for those dreams of big stage singing with top musicians, travel, the mink coat, the baby grand in an elegant lakeside home, I could not and would not compromise those particular ethics. “Then be content where you are, give or take a bit more of an escalation in the types of jobs you get,” she told me. But I was in it for the message, the meaning, the glorious wedding of words to music. This was not the music scene I’d dreamed of.
Yet I continued on. This was my life. Heck this was my religion. After singing with so many sects of Christianity and Judaism, helping lead the worship services as musicians often do, and learning about other religions via my colleagues who, much like the Beatles of another era, were always dabbling in some new ‘ism’, I had reached a point where I believed it was all just an accident of birth. You were most likely Christian if you were born in the Western world; a Hindu in India, a Buddhist in the Far East, a Jew in Israel, and so forth. We didn’t have much control over any of it and just worshipped like the rest of our family and society. For me, as long as you got to God, it didn’t matter how. So I got to God through music and also nature. I saw Him everywhere I turned.
But as fate would always have it, as comfortable and content as I was with my life, I was about to make a huge right turn.
I love coffee. I was way ahead of the Seattle’s Finest and Starbucks craze, grinding my own beans after embracing the taste of stronger European coffees in my many travels there for music. I had moved into a new neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, walking distance from my haunts at Lincoln Center, but much to my chagrin, there was not a decent cuppa Joe to be had. Until one day I noticed a tiny little shop for coffee and sweets tucked away, just across the street from my apartment. I hurried over but saw a man with dark complexion and lots of beard gazing back at me through the window. “Arabs,” I thought. They always have a thing for tall blondes. So that shop was a no-go for me. Yet one morning in haste to meet up with colleagues for a school show, I dashed in, grabbed a cup and dashed back out. He was pleasant and welcoming enough but I expected that.
But that coffee! Like nothing I’d ever tasted. I couldn’t get over how wonderful it was. Yet I refused to go back in.
One afternoon as I sat watching my clothes tumble around at the laundromat, just a few doors down from the coffee shop, both doors were apparently open and the aroma of that coffee was wafting through the door. “I’ll just duck in grab a cup and come right back.” Right back was more like two hours later.
He was Egyptian. Pleasant, even gentlemanly. That was new in New York. I was so used to getting hit on by anything male that walked. “Cool. Egypt. Tell me about pharaoh, pyramids”. And so he talked. He mentioned after a bit that he was Muslim. I admitted to being embarrassed that I didn’t know much of anything about Islam. Hollywood movies and the placement of books on Islam in libraries and bookstores had me thinking ‘pagan’ or at least multiple gods, Islam being an ‘Eastern’ religion. I was truly shocked to learn Islam was the ultimate in monotheism. All the same names I knew from the Bible were there, too; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and even Jesus. I was perplexed. How could a well read, well traveled, professional woman not know this? How come no one I knew, knew this? Well, that got me good and hooked.
I came daily for coffee and conversation…and to learn. I asked, he answered. His friends stopped by to meet this American woman so interested in their religion. They were all much like him; gentlemanly, touching their hands to hearts in lieu of shaking my hand. I felt like the Queen of Sheba! How refreshing after the phony hug-hug, kiss-kiss of my musician friends. I entered the store to find him reading a book that drew me in. With my artist eyes , the swirl of the Arabic letters was captivating. So this was the much discussed Qur’an. I didn’t suppose there was one in English, but in asking, received one the very next day.
After reading and asking questions, I slowly felt puzzle pieces fitting together and lights dawning in my brain. So logical, yet so artistic, historical, stories and science, too. Great depth of human psychology. Some months later, preparing for a Christmas spectacular at my latest church job, our director asked us to make some changes in the texts of the songs. “Congregants are complaining that we mention God too much. So we’re gonna change ‘god’ to ‘love’ whenever the word appears. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Something just clicked in me and I said “That’s it.” Come Sunday morning I took a long and special cleansing shower, finished my Sunday service and turned in my resignation. I headed up Broadway and told my friend I was ready. He couldn’t believe me at first but again as luck would have it, he had a friend visiting so I took the plunge in front of the required two witnesses and became a Muslim.
Now of course there is much more to this story. It’s been an exhilarating, topsy turvy, yet often frustrating and heartbreaking journey but I’ve added a whole new chapter in my book of life. And if you’ll have me, I will be sharing that with you here on Plaid.
Love you Noor. You area great inspiration!