Practising faith is like opening a door and realizing your life so far has been lived in a broom cupboard in the mansion of existence. Reality actually lies beyond and underneath the nuts and bolts, the brooms and cloths of the material world.
Finding Peace in the Holy Land is a memoir by Lauren Booth, who is probably best well-known as Tony Blair’s sister-in-law. Beginning with her hilarious upbringing, and moving through her life as an actress, a political activist, and then a journalist and humanitarian, it is ultimately the story of how she came to Islam.
Booth has a lovely sense of humor, and her writing is as spontaneous and vivacious as she herself is. Her sharp descriptions of the landscape in Palestine (“a building decorated in the local flavor; bullet holes”) and her narrative flair (“It was excellent advice. Advice I would completely ignore”) were a pleasure to read.
The turning point of her narrative is in the holy land, where she comes to terms with her prejudice, her views on women and family, and her assumption that the main story in the holy land is Christianity.
This book is a beautiful reminder of how Allah leads people to Islam in different ways. Booth spent a considerable part of her life feeling conflicted about her materialistic lifestyle at home and struggling to advance humanitarian causes abroad. She found herself drawn to Palestine again and again. And it is there, during the month of Ramadan, that the generosity of a Palestinian woman is what finally opens her heart to Islam.
A door in my heart felt like it had been opened by these magic words: “I fast in Ramadan to remember the poor.” Yet Um Mohamed was poor herself, catastrophically, appallingly, permanently, desperately poor. . . Of course, now it all made sense. If you recognize there were always those worse off than you, how could you sink into self-pity and endless speculation about work, money, the future? How could you envy when you were blessed? If you cared about your neighbor like yourself, if you were busy with their concerns, it took the edge off your own. What a remarkable system! A welfare state of human empathy, flowing from household to household and all with one purpose: To love and to please God. . . I was in a beautiful daze and then the thought came to me clear as day: “If this is Islam, I want to be Muslim.”
Booth’s writing is raw and honest. She comes face-to-face with her privilege during her travels, but she doesn’t stop there. I really appreciated the way she extends the idea of privilege to a ramification having to do with faith and patience. The idea being that, yes, there is suffering in the world, so why should it not also extend to her? Why should she get a free pass? Is she not a human being, like everyone else? She says:
For weeks during the trial I wanted to stay in bed and asked over and over, “why me?” Instead I forced myself to work, as so many single mums do around the world. What kept me going was the thought that it first seems negative, but proved very powerful: “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t calamities hit my family when they afflicted others? Life wasn’t about building castles in the sky, clinging to material goods thinking that well would keep disasters at bay. A positive outlook, kindness, the giving of love even in the midst of a personal drama, I found these things mattered more. Illness, financial pressures, divorce, and loss where the things of life. All I now had to ask was: how was I going to deal with them?
My one tiny gripe with this memoir is that it wasn’t always perfectly linear, and I wish it was because I sometimes found the order of events confusing. Booth often tells the beginning and ending of a story before returning to something that happened in the middle. I found this disorienting, and I had to go back several times to reread a bit, trying to discern the timeline.
I recommend this book for anyone who likes memoirs and stories of how people found Islam, as well as anyone interested in stories of strong women, humanitarian work, or the Palestinian occupation.
Thank you to Kube Publishing for sending me a copy of this book.