June 2005

Sumana Harihareswara

nonfiction

Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam by Asra Q. Nomani

It seems unfair to judge Standing Alone in Mecca as a memoir when it's clearly unfinished. It tells us the history and the recent dispatches of battles within Islam, but the story's barely begun.

Asra Nomani, a Salon.com and Wall Street Journal reporter born in India and raised in the US, travels in the Muslim world, grows close to Daniel and Mariane Pearl, has an out-of-wedlock baby, goes on the hajj -- pilgrimage to Mecca -- with her family, and decides to fight for women's rights in Islam, starting with her hometown mosque in West Virginia. If you've heard about the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour, a movement for Muslim women's rights in the US, you've heard of the present-day result of the events that happened to Nomani as chronicled in Standing Alone in Mecca.

As one would expect from a former WSJ reporter, Nomani very competently chronicles the facts of her geographic and spiritual journeys. Her anecdotes enrage and touch the reader, and she provides sources for her religious arguments. Nomani's strongest, simplest point is that in the heart of Islam's holiest site, in Mecca, women and men pray beside one another. Therefore, the mosques commonly seen in the US and other parts of the world do wrongly in segregating women into lesser halls and rooms.

She provides a thorough description of the hajj, which is invaluable to the non-Muslim reader who -- by Saudi law -- cannot enter Mecca. And her investigation into the roots and branches of Wahhabist ideology reveals frightening connections between extremist imams in Saudi Arabia and energetic young leaders in mosques in the US. Nomani and her new movement for equality among Muslims are trying to redefine Islam as an egalitarian and welcoming religion. Her heartfelt beliefs are inspiring, even if the language of empowerment she uses to detail her story lacks freshness.

It is with language, as a memoirist, that Nomani is amateurish. She's much better with the head than the heart. Perhaps I shouldn't have read Standing Alone in Mecca alongside The Language of Baklava, the expertly-told memoir by Jordanian-American novelist Diana Abu-Jaber, since Abu-Jaber's storytelling skill outstrips Nomani's. But how many times can an author use the phrase "I realized" to begin a sentence about some obvious observation? At one point she accuses her mother of not telling her that Allah is a forgiving God. Nomani had simply forgotten. Had Nomani never thought about theology before her hajj?

Standing Alone in Mecca is worth reading, if frustrating at times. We see that inequalities and frustrations within the hajj happen because of entrenched systems and inertia, and that the growth of fundamentalism within American Islam comes from driven ideologues who aim to entrench their way of thinking in the mosques and communities they control. Nomani's movement aims to confront the Wahhabists' energy with their own. As a record of this unfinished struggle, more than as a polished memoir, Nomani's book provides a valuable service.

Standing Alone In Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam by Asra Q. Nomani
HarperSanFrancisco
ISBN: 0060571446
291 pages