CAIRO – Wearing cowboy boots, Ray Allen looks a typical cowboy with a swan white skin tone, small chestnut colored eye and blondish-gray hair, making him an unusual resident of jagged snow-capped mountains of Sulaymaniyah, the capital city for Iraqi Kurdistan.
“No one in Iraq believes me when I say I am a Muslim,” Allen, a an urban cowboy from Texas who turned Muslim, told The Islamic Monthly magazine.
“They want proof so I recite Sura Fatiha,” he added, referring to the first verse in Islam’s holy book.
Finding Islam years ago, he used to live in a town outside of Dallas, Texas.
In Texas, he used to used to live alone in a large country-style house with his dog, an array of garden tools and a Qur’an.
He describes how he struggled to be Muslim, where all mosques give sermons in Arabic a language he does not understand.
“I would go to the local mosque and tried to learn Arabic,” he said.
His first encounter with Islam was some twenty years ago in Saudi Arabia where he served in the US military during the first Gulf War.
“I was nineteen years old in Taif,” he recalled.
In Taif, he heard the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, for the first time ans was wooed by Saudis’ hospitality.
“I was in full body armor and invited to tea by locals at the market with my guys. I will never forget it,” he said.
Raised to be a devout Catholic, Allen 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 his forties, Allen 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.
Though Allen was born in New Jersey, he keeps a dream of becoming a cowboy one day.
“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,” he said.
“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,” Allen added, referring to his family home in New Jersey, his place of birth.
Nevertheless, Allen is cowboy-enough and knows the code; be polite, learn from your elders, do what’s right, never lie to others and be a volunteer.
“I learned all this from my parents, and then found these same principles and more in Islam,” he said.
Miles away from his home, Allen finds it easier to practice Islam.
“I thought I would have more time for Islam but teaching is exhausting. It should be Islam first,” he said.
Every week, he attends Friday prayer and sits patiently with swaths of men listening to a sermon in Kurdish, a language he doesn’t know.
“In Suly [Sulaymaniyah], the call to prayer sounds like a garage door opening. I’ve heard more melodious tunes in Istanbul,” he said, laughing.
“I will miss using words like Alhumdulilah and Mashallah in daily conversation. I can’t do this in America with everyone,” he said.