It was my umpteenth attempt to discover my own entryway to Narnia, or any secret, magical, fantastic new world. Checking in all the closets and cupboards and in the fireplace and even in the crawlspace that I so feared turned up nothing--and that's when I figured the dryer had to be the way in.
And so, with the washing machine gently vibrating away, I took the still-warm clothes out of the dryer, folded up my 8-year-old body and stuck my head inside. I was going all the way. Until, that is, my mother pulled me out by my feet and gave me the tongue-lashing that 22 years later I still have not forgotten.
The Chronicles of Narnia were promptly removed from my bedroom for a week as a suitable punishment.
That's right. My punishment for the dryer incident was to have my favorite books taken away. Denying me my favorite books was a punishment of last resort by my parents, who often tired of my obsession with fantasy life.
I was, am, and always will be a book-a-holic. More specifically, a classic fantasy book-a-holic. It began with "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," continued through the entire Chronicles of Narnia--and then my appetite really took off. Erik Johnson, who sat behind me in third grade, said I had to read Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain," so of course I did. Rummaging through my brothers' seldom-read book collection, I found Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" series. Mrs. Hagar, my beloved elementary school librarian, recommended Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising" sequence. Recent years had me devouring the Harry Potter series as keenly as any young reader. And finally, interspersed between all of that was J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" series.
But I keep returning to C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia." Why have 60 million readers the world over taken to this engaging, awe-inspiring collection of books? Why, two decades later, can I still pick up "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" and breathlessly rush through all seven books with the same impatience to see what happens next? Why am I, like Narnia lovers everywhere, so eagerly anticipating the release of the new Narnia movie?
It certainly has little to do with the Christian allegories deeply connected with most interpretations of the Chronicles. Heck, if my parents were aware of all the Christian symbolism, I probably would have gotten an even longer, more serious lecture than the one I received after the dryer incident.
As a young Muslim girl growing up in the decidedly WASP-oriented, non-Muslim society of Grand Forks, North Dakota, my parents accepted a huge swath of responsibility for my brothers' and my religious education. They taught us the five pillars of Islam, how to navigate Western culture without compromising Islamic principles, and generally how to be the best first-generation Muslims we could be while still enjoying what we could of Americana.
You'd think that teaching me to steer clear of boys and dating and to embrace the tenets of our religion would have been hard enough for my parents. They certainly weren't prepared for my intense passion for Narnia and subsequent classical fantasy books.
Narnia was spirituality to an 8-year-old mind...
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I was hoping for an Aslan-like protective figure in my life. I was dreaming that I would find a Mr. Tumnus for a friend, or a Reepicheep for an ally, or a Professor to gently indulge my fantasies. My parents wanted me to think of Allah (SWT) All-Mighty as my ultimate best friend, guide, and protector. They were afraid I was blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, that I was happier within the pages of Narnia then living my life as a Muslim girl in Grand Forks.
And for a time I was happier when I was reading, when I was traveling the paths with the Pevensie children, when I was fighting the White Witch, when I was there for the creation of Narnia. (But not when I was reading about the demise of Narnia in "The Last Battle," even though Aslan led everyone to a new, wonderful land.) It was the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil. Certainly much more satisfying then the dramas of elementary school.
Like most children, I had difficulty drumming up such overwhelming affection, reverence, and respect for religion. Religion was such an amorphous thing, plagued by lessons and rules and things that made me different from everyone around me. Narnia was an escape, and something I knew other children also enjoyed. Narnia was spirituality to an 8-year-old mind who wanted to believe in something wonderful and promising.
I think my parents never truly worried about the depth of my love for "The Chronicles of Narnia." Of course they did worry about my tendency to lose myself in books rather than partaking in other joys of childhood. But what really mattered was that, at the end of the day, they were fine with my lightweight practice of Islam.
That I more or less willingly obeyed the rules, did my prayers and seemed well-adjusted was enough for them. That I did not understand the deeper, spiritual meaning of Islam or develop a profound relationship with Allah at that tender, young age was not a big deal. My parents knew better than me that the dueling hands of my religious spirituality and love for "The Chronicles of Narnia" would adjust itself as time marched on. And it has.
My children will be given my beloved copies of The Chronicles, as well as my well-thumbed English translation of the Qur'an. I look forward to graduating from reading out loud "Where the Wild Things Are" to reading "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" to my kids. And they'll learn about their faith and be encouraged to love Allah (SWT) and be spiritual in their own ways. And I'll hopefully supervise their own venture into our dryer.