Ray Allen is an urban cowboy from Texas searching for answers about his new faith, Islam. This summer, Ray found a home for his dog, quit his job, sold his house, and secured a teaching position in the jagged snow-capped mountains of Sulaymaniyah, the capital city for Iraqi Kurdistan, or Suly, for short. An unusual spot for a former-Catholic-turned-Muslim who is comfortable in cowboy boots, loves to watch (American) football, and brews his own super sweet iced tea.
Though Ray is skeptical about being called a cowboy. “I’ve never been on a horse. I did try riding a bull three times back in 1992, but it ended in disaster and I was almost killed. I like the essence of being a cowboy and I tried to dress the part but I could never shake off the stigma of being a Yankee by blood,” Ray told me, referring to his family home in New Jersey, his place of birth.
Still, Ray is Cowboy-enough and knows the Code. Be polite. Learn from your elders. Do what’s right. Never lie to others. Be a volunteer, which he did at every festival, fare, and barbecue cookout. “I learned all this from my parents, and then found these same principles and more in Islam,” he said.
We met by accident. A series of emails, then letters, and finally face-to-face meetings helped me see Ray for what he wished to become. “I can’t practice Islam in America,” he told me, repeatedly.
“That’s not true,” I scoffed. We argued back and forth. We debated the image of Muslim countries versus Islam in America. Is one place more sacred than the other? Was America’s experience with Islam to blame for Ray’s sudden escape to northern Iraq?
Ray’s first encounter with Islam was in Saudi Arabia, where he served in the U.S. military during the first Gulf War. “I was nineteen years old in Taif,” he recalled. There, Ray heard the adhan or Muslim call to prayer and met Saudis who wooed him with their hospitality. “I was in full body armor and invited to tea by locals at the market with my guys. I will never forget it.” Almost twenty years later, Ray gifted me with an emerald colored prayer rug he bought from that market, which his mother hung on the wall for décor when she was alive.
Ray is a husky-looking man with a swan white skin tone, charming small chestnut colored eye, blondish-gray hair and the smile of a dolphin. “No one in Iraq believes me when I say I am a Muslim. They want proof so I recite Sura Fatiha,” the first verse in Islam’s holy book.
Raised to be a devout Catholic, Ray comes from a large family and is now the only Muslim. “I couldn’t have been a Muslim when both my parents were alive. I think it would have hurt them too much,” he confided.
In a town outside of Dallas, Texas, Ray struggled to be Muslim. He lived alone in a large country-style house with his dog, an array of garden tools and a Quran. “I would go to the local mosque and tried to learn Arabic,” he said. Not an easy task when English is your only language.
Inside the classroom, Ray wants to greet his students with a Southern accented Aslamo-laikum but he must blurt out “Howdy y’all” instead because the school prevents mixing religion with education. Ray teaches at the elementary and high school level. His best student is Maryam, a girl originally from Lahore, Pakistan, which is by coincidence, my birth city and country.
After class, Ray is consumed with work. He spends nights absorbing new material and develops curriculum. “I thought I would have more time for Islam but teaching is exhausting. It should be Islam first.” In his forties, Ray is eager to learn about a faith he believes helped him regain his strength after a failed marriage and the loss of both parents from cancer.
Every Friday, Ray attends afternoon prayer and sits patiently with swaths of men listening to a sermon in Kurdish, a language he doesn’t know. “This is the wealthiest part of Iraq,” he said, surprisingly. “People have been free now from Saddam’s rule for barely ten years. Everyone seems to have abundant money and there is no shortage of oil. But in time, the city will lose its innocence.”
Three months in and Ray has discovered Iraq is one of many cultural centers in the Islamic world where religion is loosely practiced. Some men wear gold, which is traditionally meant for women. Most don’t pray.
“In Suly, the call to prayer sounds like a garage door opening. I’ve heard more melodious tunes in Istanbul,” he said, laughing. Even so, Ray admits he is drawn to the culture of Islam. “I will miss using words like Alhumdulilah and Mashallah in daily conversation. I can’t do this in America with everyone,” he said.
But America will always be his home. Someday, Ray plans to migrate back to Texas and buy a house with land as far as the eye can see.