This Pic is- American couple Omar and Fatima McConnell in their Damascus home. They converted to Islam before they met each other after suffering massive personal traumas
Omar McConnell, formerly James, 46, from Ridgeville, Connecticut. Now lives in Damascus with his wife Fatima, formerly Suzanne, from Stillwater, Oklahoma. He converted to Islam in 1994 in New York but says he did not truly become a Muslim until four years ago, when he met Sufi Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi in Cyprus.
“It was 1992 and I was working in music video production in New York, accelerating rapidly through the ranks, becoming successful. We were shooting Michael Jackson and all the major new videos that were running on MTV, which at the time was a brand new phenomenon. But the place started getting crazy – people were embezzling money from the budget, snorting lots of cocaine. So the company closed the NY office. The pool of directors disbanded and started their own production companies. I quickly had a big freelance list of people who wanted to hire me.
I moved into an apartment on the Upper East Side with my Jewish girlfriend who worked for another music video company – we became roomates and soulmates. But that apartment was slowly poisoning me to death – heavy metal poisoning. There were 32 toxic metals in the building’s crude oil burner. The rumour was the mafia was being paid to take industrial toxic waste and put it in fuel oil that they would then sell to residents. I was freelancing so would be in the house for two weeks at a time between shoots, calling to drum up work. I got sicker and sicker – it drove us apart. She finally moved out and I became so sick I couldn’t go out of the apartment and buy food.
But I couldn’t get a doctor to do a proper evaluation on me because I had no health insurance. And my family didn’t want anything to do with me. As a Protestant if you don’t have health insurance it’s your own damned fault – it’s an amazing way to be.
Each day people from the Egyptian deli delivered me food to keep me alive and I became friends with them. I was very anti-religion – I thought it was a crock of nonsense. I thought I was invincible and never going to die – why would I think otherwise when I had cocaine. I tried to get laid every Friday night. I laugh about it now because it makes me realise what it’s like not to be a Muslim. But they would give me lectures on why I shouldn’t live as I did. They told me 20 per cent of the world was Muslim. I couldn’t believe I had gone through years of education and I didn’t know that. It annoyed me – I had worked in advertising and from a business standpoint 20 per cent is a huge chunk of the market. They told me there was a book that had never been changed from the time of its inception. I informed them that was absolutely impossible because anything man touches he corrupts. I challenged them – I said I want to see this book and I will prove to you you are wrong.
This was while Allah was still breaking me down over two years, slowly and mechanically, towards my devastation. One day I had a particularly bad flash of pain – it paralysed the right side of my body. I didn’t think about suicide – instinctively I knew it was wrong. I was on my knees crying my eyes out, begging God for help. The deal was that if God showed me a source of obvious truth that I really understood then I would follow it. I figured that was a way to get out of it because I didn’t believe in truth. The suffering was unbelievable, testing my physical self to weaken my spiritual self.
The next day one of the Egyptians gave me the Quran. He told me that every time I read it I should take a shower beforehand, then read the opening verse, then a thirtieth of the rest. I read with the intention of disproving it – I would come up with five unanswerable questions each time I sat down to read. The next day when I opened up the next thirtieth every single one would be answered. It was starting to get freaky. The truth was jumping out at me and I knew in my heart of hearts I had found what I was looking for.
There was no doubt that my prayer had been answered. I discovered the dog having a twitching fit and had an environmental engineer come in. He found there was 200x the safe level of Cadmium as well as Mercury and other chemicals that were causing all these problems.
I can’t say everyone who picks up the Quran will have this experience. It was the sincerity of that prayer and that challenge to Allah to share the truth that caused this understanding to come. It doesn’t open up to people who aren’t sincere.
Then the struggle to perfect that understanding began. I went up to take my formal Shahada at a Kuwaiti mosque on 1st Avenue, although I didn’t actually become a Muslim until I met Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi four years ago. You struggle through listening to Muslims who are operating in the realm of the brain, not the heart. You find people bickering and acting worse than animals in these mosques, Imams ranting about disbelievers with this ugly harsh face that makes you cringe and wonder why you are involved in this religion which was created by man, no different from Judaism or Christianity or politicians who use the threat of terrorism to make you fall in line like good little sheep.
Eighty per cent of the mosques in the US are not mosques – they are country clubs, just like church. Everyone has their own role in them. But religion is the absence of identity. I was searching for spirituality rather than for packaged religion.
Sufism seemed to be what I was interested in. I found someone born in Damascus who studied under the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro. I spent seven years by his side trying to find out about Islam.
It was while I was him that I met my wife – over the internet. I went online for a good laugh to see some of the ridiculous – I’m looking for a modern Muslim who has two BMWs, an income of $150,000 and doesn’t mind if I wear push-up bras with my Hijab. But she jumped out at me because she was so different – this was someone truly interested in pursuing Islam. We got married on the telephone. She lived in quite a poor Oklahoma community and I couldn’t afford a hotel so we got married so I could stay on her couch without there being any wrongdoing because we were still interested in following all these strict rules we had heard about.
After a while I felt I needed to go to the source. So I got a place on a summer programme here in Damascus. I never went back. The first two years were a bit of a struggle to acclimatise. But there are so many great things about being in Damascus – crime is almost non-existent – you can’t buy that in the US.
I met Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi four years ago and I don’t feel like I was a Muslim until I met him. He just destroys you. A Sheikh’s job is the most difficult there is – it’s easier to slay 10 dragons than to slay your ego, and that’s what your physical self is. You go to his place is Cyprus and the devils are everywhere – he doesn’t kick them out. He teaches you about seeing with the heart, not with the senses. You can fly, sit on the sun and not get burned. I don’t speak from experience – I am just beginning. But I have had just a taste to show me what is possible.”
Fatima McConnell, nee Suzanne Tattal from Stillwater, Oklahoma, 43, was attacked and left for dead aged 10 and spent the rest of her life repressing the memory. Only 40 days in seclusion with a Sufi Sheikh could help her confront her past.
“People who become Muslim are usually people who have had a pretty hard time, to whom something earth-shattering has happened. It makes them search and for that I’m grateful for the difficulties I’ve had.
I was attacked and left for dead when I was 10 years old. I don’t want to say more about that except that I ended up in hospital near death.
It was the worst experience with the best experience. While I was close to death I spent some time in a place that I now know was a piece of heaven, a beautiful spiritual experience. My whole life since has been spent trying to get that back. I didn’t understand that was what I was looking for until I met Sufi Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi four years ago but I did accept Islam before then.
I was married to an Arab who was not a practising Muslim but he had many friends who were. In 1989 we lived in a college town in Oklahoma where a third of the students were Muslim. I was a nurse and I visited the local mosque.
I got involved with the local Muslim community because I was helping raise money for one family who had a member suffering from cancer.
When I was 27 I took the Shahada but I didn’t practise. I converted because my husband was a Muslim and we were planning to travel to Dubai in the Middle East. For another four years I didn’t practise Islam but I read about the Quran and agreed with what I read. I didn’t wear the hijab much – it was off and on. I wore it in Dubai.
I got a divorce because my husband wasn’t behaving well. I was more interested in Islam and that seemed to push him further away from me because he wasn’t.
So I went back to the US. I had a decision to make – was I or a Muslim or not? I had made a commitment to God in my heart to raise my child as a Muslim. He was six at that time and I was 31.
I was living in a cowboy town called Shawnee – there were really no Muslims at all there. People there didn’t know I was a Muslim. As a Muslim my son was obliged to go to mosque, which was an hour’s drive away. I told the school it was part of a custody agreement so they would let me take him without any trouble. He used to put on a Kufi hat – I didn’t want him to lose his Arab heritage just because I had divorced.
In 1995 I read the Quran in English and decided I wanted to be Muslim for myself. I put an advertisement on the internet looking for a Muslim husband to help me learn Islam. I wanted to be married and I wanted my son to have a father figure in his life because his Dad was in Dubai and not a good example.
Omar answered my ad. I had 50 responses but only two that were worth calling. One was from an African-American man who took second place on that basis. This one was white and that one black. I wasn’t being racist, just practical. I had already done the multicultural thing and didn’t want to do it again.
We talked for a month and got married over the phone. We came to Damascus six years ago on one-way tickets and without enough money to get back home. We got ourselves stuck here in a way because it’s hard to decide to move to another country. We’ve been happy.
When we went to Cyprus and met Sheikh Naqshbandi I knew in my heart I had met him before but I didn’t understand it at that time. I had no memory of what had happened to me. About two years ago he put me in seclusion for 40 days in the mountains between Syria and Lebanon. No talking, no telephone, no contact with anyone. I would just do Zikur – meditating by repeating the name of Allah – and pray. I was to take aa bath twice a day.
The first 30 days were nothing special – I just did the exercises. I didn’t realise it but I was being prepared to remember things I had not remembered in years. These 30 days were an appreciation of myself – looking in the mirror and saying I’m ok. I hadn’t done that in 30 years – I had got to the point of not having any mirrors in the house because I didn’t want to remember. Eyes tell a story so seeing your eyes is difficult.
One night I had a horrible dream. I woke up really angry. I always knew something had happened to me but I always left it on the back burner. I didn’t want to spend my life in therapy. I used to say things are repressed for a reason.
But Sheikh Naqshbandi dropped sandbags in front of me and said ‘That is what you are going to deal with’. We have since been working on it together and I have done a little flight. I don’t think my body ever physically went anywhere – your inner being goes.
That first night I was lying there and I felt like Sheikh Naqshbandi said ‘Ok now it’s time’. I felt my body go up. I looked down and saw we were on a prayer carpet but I felt like I had been put into a stretcher and securely fastened in, like those stretchers on the sides of helicopters. I saw the Sheikh big and huge there – he was the conductor of the trip. We shot out through a wormhole in the wall – face first and very very fast. I could feel the G-force on my face.
We went to many different places on the earth – places from my past. The two places I remember were heavenly places. I felt us stop so I opened my eyes.
It was a white pearl and turquiose room. I had the most absolutely wonderful feeling of peace. There was a lot of light in the room. There was a symbol which I understood had something to do with women – it was kind of fallopian-shaped. I had been there before. This was a station for women and martyred souls – not people who are dead but whose souls have been damaged. I opened my hands to make Dua – Islamic prayer – but I felt the Sheikh put his hands on mine – a softness I had felt before – and I understood I wasn’t allowed to make Dua at that time.
We went to another room, very small with two doors on either side. I didn’t go through them so I didn’t know its significance. They were both the same colours – white, pearl and turquoise.
We came back. I didn’t want to – I wanted to go somewhere else. I was saying ‘Again again’. I heard voices say ‘She’s sleeping don’t disturb her’. I was saying ‘Leave me alone’. I heard the sound of a blanket being spread and thought they had covered me up.
Sheikh Naqshbandi asked me ‘What do you want to know?’ I said out loud and with a lot of power ‘I want to see Rossoul Allah [The Prophet Mohammed]’ with the voice of a child. Because I had seen him as a child, because I wanted to get back to him. My eyes opened, I was awake. The trip was finished.”