In My Past I Was Cleopatra
Amal Awad
Allen & Unwin

Amal Awad is many things – lawyer, an editor, an author, a critic and a writer of drama, TV and film scripts. Awad’s work has covered big issues like gender, ageing, relationships and religious identity.

Her latest book discusses her personal journey through modern (and dare I say commercial?) spirituality. She brings to this topic the unique perspective of an Australian person of Palestinian Muslim heritage. Her treatment of various forms of modern spirituality is sceptical but fair. Awad is no evangelist but she is also no Muslim supremacist.

Awad’s journey includes dabbling in New Age literature and practices. She attends a conference in Arizona to watch a concert and learn about miracles and enlightenment. You can almost smell the incense sticks burning.

The book contains plenty of anecdotes about her cultural and religious upbringing – the Arabic prayers and phrases repeated on many occasions, the interaction between her OCD (a brave and honest admission for which she deserves special credit) and her faith (“I don’t pun my OCD on religion; I think it simply gave it form”) and the importance of her culture (“[t]he Arab and the Islamic parts of my existence have always complemented each other, though in some ways they can seem to contradict, too”).

Awad speaks warmly of her mother who, like mine, was happy to combine religiosity with a reasonable dose of ecumenical wisdom (in mum’s case, Dr Phil). Conventional or religious solutions didn’t always work for Awad, who needed to dabble.

“And this is where I started to see how synchronicity and intuition rise when you’re in a sort of ‘flow’. You start to find solutions, and often in a moment of good timing. I was gradually becoming more receptive to trying out things that didn’t always find mainstream acceptance.”

Indeed, truth and meaning are often found on the margins.

Awad’s experience also provide context to her many articles published in places such as ELLE where she wrote about “moving out of home and how it took a while before I started to act like I had this independence I’d won. I had moved out as a single Arab-Muslim woman, but I acted like someone who still lived with a curfew and ever-watchful, anxious parents. It was time to grow up, figure out who the hell I was, or perhaps rather, who I could be”.

Many allegedly orthodox Muslims frown upon New Age, self-help and similar stuff. Some argue it is bid’ah (innovation) while others even go as far as to say it is shirk (associating partners with God). But seriously, for how long can we shirk our own cravings for meaning outside our comfort zone? Didn’t the Prophet Muhammad teach us that wisdom is the lost property of the believer? Who cares where we find wisdom?

The book is a refreshing combination of autobiography and journalism. I give it 5 out of 5 magic crystals.