TRANSFORMATIONS

Compiled By: Hajj Mustafa Ali

Story by Muhammad Sayed (Terry) Fry

Being of reticent nature, I admit to having had mixed feelings regarding the display of my feelings to the reading public. Mine is such a peculiar story. At times I felt akin with the witness of an “extra-terrestrial object” full of little green men who is too embarrassed to relate to the fact. But at the risk of arousing old nightmares I will try to detail what happened to me during the spring of 1983.

The end result is that my world changed and life took on new meaning through these events, though I may never know all the details this side of Judgment Day, nevertheless what took place was a divine intervention holding no earthly explanation. May Allah guide me in the task of explaining this phenomenon.

I was born in 1930 into an English-Catholic family; my father’s Irish background mixed with mother’s evangelical Protestantism producing offspring with more than their average share of spirituality.

Early life was happily secure in the religious ambience of church and school, firm in the tenets of Catholic doctrine with its routine of mass, rosary and unshakeable faith.

I grew to manhood and marriage secure in the Faith that I loved, comfortable in its sacramental system and ritual, serving on its alters and holding membership in many of its associations, and of course never once doubting that anything would change my outlook and that I would serve my God through His Holy Church for as long as I lived. In short I was as enthusiastic a Catholic as you would find with occasional aspirations even for the priesthood.

I became an engineering draftsman, married with a good wife and was soon blessed with two children – boy and a girl. In 1965 we all immigrated to Niagara Falls, Canada, where we have resided ever since.

In the early months of 1983, I took a contract with a Maltese company in the Libyan oil fields. This is where my story begins.

I landed in Malta on March 7 and was soon ensconced in a hotel overlooking the sea. That same evening my boss took me out for dinner. After the meal he mentioned something, which like nothing I had ever heard before, impacted on my senses and attained such profundity that it swept all cynicism to dust.

“Life” he said, “Is too beautiful an experience, just to end by dying”. This sentence was to act on my being like a catalyst and its essence remain for a long time.

Later that night, in my hotel room, while dwelling on this phrase, indeed it would not leave my mind; I felt quite distinctly a “religious experience”.

I imagined initially that I was dying, so deep and poignant was the emotion. I can remember moments, during this trance-like condition, when I forgot how to breathe. I was completely overwhelmed but in a pleasant way-by the strongest feelings of approaching a wall or barrier, the other side of which was the truth, beauty, light and reality. I had found a glorious continuity to life by discovering the certainty of life after death. I had approached the veil separating out two existences and felt how simple it was to pass I even felt a sensation, I can only describe as the unscrewing – just a turn, of the top of my head, a subsequent of which was a novel surge of strength both in my body and intellect.

I do not know how long this lasted, I was totally outside the limits of time and space, but eventually I remember gathering my wits and reflecting that death need hold no fears, everything returns to Him from whence it came and over all a wonderful peace.

I immediately wrote my wife that I had found renewal in God. She later owned to amazement on receiving this letter.

The next ten days in Malta while awaiting visa processing, were lived at such a frantic pace and on a different level to what I had been accustomed as to appear irrational. I had never felt so fit, so joyful, so intelligent in my life. My eyes seemed to possess visionary power; my mind piercing acumen and my energy was unbounded. I wondered if this feeling was identical to what Paul felt on the road to Damascus or Bernadette at Lourdes, or any of the Christian mystics and visionaries on receiving divine revelation.

One afternoon I took a tourist boat outing around the many harbors of historic Valetta. All the passengers except for myself were sitting out of cover in the bow, enjoying the late winter sunshine. I was alone amid ships under the awning listening to the guides voice on the public address system, describing the various sites. Here was the site where the British aircraft carrier, “Ark Royal”, sheltered safely under the cliff during the dark days of the second world war, while above it the town was devastated by enemy dive bombers attempting to hit the carrier. I felt the vibrations of the dying throes of the town, heard the bombs and metallic shrieks of carnage and tasted the obscenity of war.

Again as the guide intoned sagas of the Knights of Malta resisting the Turks during the great siege, and describing how prisoners were beheaded and their heads fired from cannon at the enemy positions, I sought shelter from a rain of heads and foothold among skulls. This latter presentiment was to later prove significant.

What did God want of me? The age-old question was heavily pondered upon. I felt the answer was somewhere in Valetta. Each visit to the old city gave me strong psychic senses. Valetta was old and haunted by the blood-drenched past. I was reluctantly drawn to the magnificent cathedral of St. John the Divine. Something I knew awaited me there.

As I passed through the main doors a verger pointed to the famous paintings on the ceiling of the nave. I was tremendously impressed by the artistry exhibited by the virtually unknown Calabrian painter and wandered down the aisle craning my neck at the brilliance of the Renaissance genius.

Happening to glance downward at the floor of the nave, I found I was walking on the marbled graves and epitaphs of the Knights of Malta – the patrons and builders of this baroque cathedral. With a sickening shock I discerned that each epitaph was bordered by a depiction of skulls – fulfilling my premonition of tiptoeing among skulls. Not wanting to see more, I fled.

Days passed and I was concerned about this episode in the cathedral. I felt more strongly there was some message for me there, and I must drum up some courage and find out more. I determined once again to visit the cathedral.

Knowing that every move I made could prove significant I entered the doors and went to the spot in the nave where I had received the trauma of the skulls. At this spot I felt a strong urge to move to another grave close to a supporting pillar. I read the epitaph, thinking perhaps, with not a small amount of vanity that the remains were some titled ancestors. A stronger attraction pulled to the pillar itself. On it was a tablet commemorating the painter of the ceiling. Then I knew that whatever it was I had come to find out was in or on the ceiling. At this point I had found a chair in which to sit and take stock and ponder my next move. I had a pencil and paper and wrote down what had happened till then. I walked to the pillar with half-closed eyes, scarcely daring to look closely at anything for fear of confusing the reception of any message. I stood with my back on the pillar and my eyes followed the line of the soaring vaulted arch to the pillar on the other side of the nave. I quickly walked to this other pillar, stood with my back to it, closed my eyes, placed myself in the presence of God, turned my face to the ceiling and read: “A MESSENGER MUST BE PUER”.

Tears dimmed my vision, a lump rose in my throat and with joy hardly contained I rushed outside.

Somehow or other on the ceiling written in English for me to read, (where of course there was no writing, and if there was it would not be in English), there was a phrase with a word spelt dyslexic ally. My wife is dyslexic and suffers from this impairment to reading and that is the way she would spell pure. Also, it had connotations of the Prophet, which I would only come to recognize later .I knew now for certain that I had been prepared for a test; something of moment was to happen to me I felt sure in North Africa.

Girded with the strength of a newfound faith I knew would overcome, with God’s help, whatever situation may arise.

My visa eventually arrived and I left Malta on March 18 in the highest of spirits and flew to Tripoli, Libya. There had been many such journeys of this kind over the years. My marriage had endured many such partings for the sake of job advancement and financial reward. These journeys usually made in a state of depression with the prospect of facing long separations from loved ones. Yet what a contrast my feeling on this short flight. No holidaymaker ever flew with happier anticipation and buoyancy of spirit than myself.

Landing in Tripoli I was soon on my way by taxicab to an overnight stop in a downtown hotel. It was soon on my way by taxi that my ordeal began. No matter how hard I try to recapitulate the events in the taxi, and wherever it was the taxi delivered me, the issues became obfuscated. I can only surmise and make suppositions, reality and dreams are indistinguishable. I was drugged, anesthetized, words became slurred and unintelligible, like talking in ones sleep. Vivid  dreams of epic proportions; drug induced-galaxy-shaking dreams, in them I am cast in heroic mould.

In my final dream on earth, dimly discerning against the false dawn’s light a veranda roof and a stone wall, a courtyard; only it isn’t a dream, it is reality. I am in a bed, in a courtyard surrounded by wards. My legs are chained to some kind of block at the foot of the bed; a strap fastened to each wrist passes under the bed. How long I have been like this. I will never know; but consciousness is returning with the daylight. I can hear movements, sounds of people stirring from restive slumbers. Now shadowy figures emerge about the yard. I am largely ignored-perhaps I have died.

People are now performing ablutions, it is sunrise and there is a quality of eeriness. Some are definitely imbecilic, some are mongoloids with abnormally sized heads, others are low browed, villainous looking, some bare hideous scars, still others are watching like wardens.

People are now noticing me and addressing me in Arabic.

I am given more pills and relapse into oblivion again.

Eventually my bonds are released and I can, move slowly around the yard. I find a broom and set myself to work, what the psychologists would call a displacement activity, it gives me time to collect my thoughts.

It transpires that the secret police have been too heavy-handed with their drugs and were forced to bring me to this place to recover. The inmates appear heavily sedated but the atmosphere is still one of dementia with high explosive potential. Somebody is constantly berating me, “why you make all this trouble?” The problem is, in this place one cannot tell the mad from the sane.

I find out that my awakening in the ward occurred on March 29. There were eleven days missing in my life since the air flight on the 18th. They can be accounted for only in a faintly remembered surfacing from numbing depths of oblivion. Awakening in filthy cells, between nightmares, I do remember trying to kill myself by beating my head of the wall of a cell.

On Easter Sunday, April 3rd, I am called into the doctor’s office and informed, “you are better, and can go”, and I am released into the hands of two gentlemen of the secret police. I am interrogated but nothing is making any sense. They want to blame me for something, and make me admit to some enormity of which I am ignorant.

The “interview” over, I am driven somewhere outside Tripoli. We turn off the highway into some bush, no road, and arrive at an unmarked building. It is surrounded by trees and invisible from the road. I had noticed, peeping under my blindfold a plainclothes armed guard at a barrier.

I was soon to become terribly familiar with this place, a clandestine prison.

There is no doubt in my mind; the worst of cruelty that can be inflicted on anyone is solitary confinement.

Will I ever forget that cell? Tiled floor, about eight-foot square, very high walls, with an opening, not a window at the top. A light that was kept on during the night, a blue steel door with barred grille and a small door covering the grille. Complete isolation. A length of thin foam rubber, the only furnishing.

Scratched messages on the walls in their despair did little to raise the spirits. Smears of excrement hardly enhanced the paintwork. The only sounds the course shouting of the guards, screeching of door hinges and clang of drawn bolts.

Toilet visits depended on the whim of the guards and were at their convenience but limited to two visits per day. One was quickly reduced to animal status, and I thought the kindest that could happen was to quickly go mad and not be burdened by the mental ability to fret on one’s condition. Of course one cannot go mad to order, it could take time but banish these thoughts. God help me – I recite rosary using my fingers as beads. Interspersed in my prayers I hear Adhan from a distant mosque. I am soothed by the Moslem call to prayer.

I try hard not to think of my family.

Yet through it all I am conscious of a new fortitude, a special pride that I am coping with a very strange situation, and most of all I feel God’s guidance, and a surrendering to His Holy will.

I am four days in solitary confinement with total deprivation, before being transferred to a civil prison in Tripoli. This was a large complex, housing many wings with radiating cellblocks from a central yard. I remember a statue of a black horse standing outside the administration block.

Thrust through the gate, which was then locked behind me, I find myself in a yard surrounded by the high walls of adjacent cellblocks. A line of washing flapped in the breeze and I was soon surrounded by welcoming inmates.

I had never before experienced such a warm outpouring of affection at this my first contact with a group of Moslems.

Introductions are interrupted by Adhan, one of the men explaining that it is prayer time and they are all Muslims. A voice speaks through my mouth, “I have always wanted to be a Muslim”. “Well,” he replies, “There is no time like the present.” There and then, after being only five minutes in the place, I am ushered into the presence of two ample-girded prisoner-Imams both. One a huge man put me in mind of ‘The Big Fisherman’, St. Peter himself, the other Imam was blind. Kneeling before them, with the rest of the inmates as witnesses, I made ‘Shahadah’.

Tears overflowed my eyes as the brothers embraced me.

“When they listen to that which has been revealed unto the Messenger, though seest their eyes overflow with tears because of their recognition of the truth. They say: Our Lord, we believe. Inscribe us amongst the witnesses” (Qur`an 5:83).

During the next month I was able to observe within that prison, such examples of brotherly love and charity, which I quickly came to comprehend how Islam was the manifestation of all that Christianity tried to teach.

Many of the brothers were in prison because of politics. Many had suffered torture. Some were martyred.

In our cell were 84 men. The prison was old and the concrete crumbly but we worked to keep the place spotless. There were only two toilets and consequently always a queue to use them, but always there was politeness and an insistence on the other going first.

Either due to the drug effects or as a result of struggling against my manacles, I had lost feeling in my hands. As a therapy, and having been given writing material, I copied the introductory commentary on the Holy Qur’an by Yusuf Ali, and to my increasing wonder found therein a scholarly work that by its own right should be recognized as an English literary classic for the introduction alone.

Life settled into an Islamic routine; and at times the yard resembled an early university with the study groups settling issues. I taught English to a small group in between reading Qur’an. Chores of washing clothes by hand, mending, sewing, things utterly alien to a westerner were undertaken cheerfully and Islamically. As strength returned so did longing for home.

I decided to fast one day. The next day I beseeched Allah to reunite me with my family. The day after I was released.

“Mr. Terry, you are free.” The guards voice came through the yard gate. A stunned assembly around the gate let the words slowly sink in and gathered about me in mounting excitement. “Mr. Terry from Canada is free,” the guard repeated.

My brothers pressed gifts on me, bars of soap, bottles of shampoo, the little money they had. I ran to the main cell to collect my few things, including my writing book. Many embraces.

“We will meet in heaven, Brother Mohammed.” I am sure all of you merit that great reward dear brothers. What a communion of saints you made, what a great Masjid. From different various cultures and back grounds – Palestinians, Italians, Turks, a Welshman – doctors, Imams, lawyers, a dentist, army officers, a shepherd, you taught me the true equality of man under God, the realization that the Christian love taught by Jesus (PBUH), was Islam all the time. The true Judaism as taught by Moses (PBUH), was Islam all the time. That life lived on this earth by every animal and plant is Islam… Islam and Islam. Ameen.

I pray two rakahs with my brothers for the last time on this earth, and I am ushered out of the gate and into the prison office still not fully aware of what is happening.

Two plain-clothes officers drive me through the streets of Tripoli and suddenly with a sickening realization, I deduce from the surroundings, where it is I am being driven.

Back to the secret police HQ and its grinning guards.

Perhaps, after all this is the end. A quick bullet in the head, a push into the acid bath. Who knows? Such is my despair I can hardly pray.

I am taken back to that dreadful building – this must be the end. Forced back down the same corridor and flung into a cell. As my eyes grow accustomed to the light I recognize it as the very same cell in which I spent solitary confinement. Gradually the same familiar wall scratching come into readable view, even my own attempt at calendar now appears.

Have I been dreaming the events of the last month?

No, I soon find out as I hear the now familiar Adhan coming from a near-by village.

I recall the last time I prayed in this cell was as a Catholic reciting the rosary on my fingers; now a month later make ready for `Asr prayer as a Muslim, and the whole purpose of my past is made plain. I am no longer a victim of circumstance, but an instrument of God’s Holy Will; it is so patently clear, I have been divinely guided full circle back to the bosom of Allah , from whence I strayed.

Fortified by my prayer, I submit my confinement to Allah’s will and intermittently pray and sleep till Fajr.

Next morning I am roughly blindfolded and bundled into a car, driven to the airport and put on a flight to Malta.

Two days later I am reunited with my wife and family in Canada. It was May 11th, 1983.

No reasons were given for detention and release. No charges were made, and the affair viewed from a pragmatic angle remains a mystery.

Yet here we are, both my wife and myself, feeling as if we have been Muslims all our lives; perhaps unconsciously we have.

We have found in Islam the fulfillment of the basic Christian ideals. Indeed now that we are Muslims we feel that as ex-Christians, the ex must stand for extra.

I hope dear brother that Allah blesses you and your project.