Tucsonan finds her way with Islam
Arizona Daily Star
As the Sept. 11 attacks tainted Islam as a religion of extremists, Tucsonan Leslie Travaglione said, she kept thinking of Muslims who didn’t fit the description.
Could Islam harbor terrorists? What was this religion really all about? Travaglione kept asking herself.
Her mind kept wandering back to the Muslim nurse in Mesa who had watched over her after a car accident years earlier, soon after she moved to Arizona from the Hudson Valley in New York. “She sat by my bedside, and she read to me,” Travaglione recalled. “She was so kind; she kept my spirits up all the time.”Seeking answers about Islam, Travaglione immersed herself in the study of the religion, which pulled her in like a magnet. A year ago, she became a Muslim. “I discovered that Islam is a tolerant, very kind religion,” she said.
Until she converted to Islam, Travaglione said, her life had been punctuated by family conflict, depression and alcoholism. Now Islam fills her life. “Islam gives me a reason to live,” said Travaglione, as she prepared to observe Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. Like other Muslims, she will begin a daily fast today that lasts from dawn to dusk. The monthlong observance, which highlights prayer, reflection and charity, gives Travaglione a chance for contemplation and renewal, she said. “It’s also a communal experience because we break fast with other Muslims, and we get to meet other people.”
As she does every week, Travaglione, 44, on Friday prayed at the Islamic Center of Tucson near the University of Arizona. Warda Harama, who also was at the mosque, described Travaglione as a good Muslim because the convert follows the religion’s basic tenets, including attending prayers at the mosque often. “She seems committed to Islam,” Harama said. “She and the rest of us will be here at the mosque even more during Ramadan.”
After the early afternoon prayers, Travaglione and other women chatted about Ramadan on their side of the mosque.
The men were on the opposite side; Islam forbids the intermingling of women and men.
The practice may seem sexist to some, Trava-glione noted, but she is comfortable with it. “My mother thinks Muslims are behind the times,” she said. “But that’s the way it is, it’s part of the religion, and I’m accepting it.”
Her mother, as well as some friends, question Travaglione’s decision to embrace Islam and cover her entire body — with the exception of face and hands — in an Islamic show of modesty.
Her hijab, or head covering, and floor-length dresses usually turn heads. The stares no longer make her uneasy, she said, but the questions people ask her still do.
“It’s hard on me,” said Travaglione, who is divorced and has a daughter living in New York. “Sometimes I just feel like I don’t want anybody to ask me anything about it.”
Contrary to perception, Travaglione said not all women wear the hijab, and they are not forced to do so. Initially, she did not like the idea of wearing the loose attire. But the more she thought about it, Travaglione said, the more it made sense.
“The general school of thought is that you don’t want to dishonor yourself by attracting attention to your body instead of you as a human being, who you are as a person,” she said. “It is more dignified not to have myself hanging out all over my clothes.”
Although it may be difficult for non-Muslims to understand, Travaglione said Islam’s segregation of the sexes and the modest attire of its followers works for Muslims because the religion doesn’t allow dating. Marriages usually are arranged, she said.
As for her, Travaglione noted that she is appreciative when a man looks directly into her eyes, rather than at her chest, when talking.
“All my clothes are Muslim now,” she said. “I used to wear shorts and tank tops, and I don’t wear them anymore.”
Now, she is focused on learning how to be a good Muslim. In her tiny Midtown apartment, Tra-vaglione reads a translated version of the Quran, Muslims’ holy book, and other Islamic literature.
As all devout Muslims, she prays five times a day, facing east toward the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
She still has a lot to learn about the religion, Travaglione said, but she is a willing student. Already, she can recite some prayers in the Arabic language of Islam.
“I have found my way,” she said, and smiled.