by Amanda Quraishi
I started reading this book at the worst possible time, and in the worst possible frame of mind to expect anything that that would even resemble an objective review. Which is fine because I don’t particularly relish being objective. (It’s just not something I’m good at.) So I’m going to go ahead and say that Tripping With Allah was fucking amazing. I mean it. This book slapped me right across my face, sat my ass in a chair and forced me to eat my peas in an unexpected way. It was a book I needed to read very badly at this point in my life. I’m not just being dramatic or trying to flatter the author–it’s probably not going to go down in history as one of the most impactful books of the 21st century, and it may not even be Michael Muhammad Knight’s best work. But it was exactly what I needed right now.
Knight has been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while. I read his Vice blog and I’m Facebook friends with him, although we’ve never had a personal conversation. This is the first of his books I’ve read (although it’s the ninth book he’s written). I know him to be a polarizing figure, a convert, and a self-proclaimed asshole. He’s also an ivy league academic and a prolific writer.
So, here’s rundown: Knight decides he’s going to try this hallucinogenic herbal concoction called ayahuasca that has been used in spiritual rituals in the Amazon for centuries, with the hope that it would give him some kind of amazing spiritual visions that he can write an interesting book about. Tripping chronicles him trying the ayahuasca three times over a period of months, and while he tells the story of making connections with folks who administer the drug, he intermittently sprinkles in all kinds of interesting stuff about the history of the global drug trade, the history of drug use in Islamic societies, and his own personal history having a schizophrenic father and converting to Islam at the age of sixteen.
His first two attempts with the ayahuasca concoction fall flat, and for a while I was really worried that the book wasn’t going to have a money shot. But on his third attempt he trips out like a motherfucker and one very heavy chapter is dedicated to graphically detailing the series of potent psycho-religiousexual visions he has on this occasion. I certainly don’t want to ruin it for you with any spoilers but I estimate 9 out of 10 people are going to find something in it that is offensive.
I was not offended in the least.
But for me, reading Tripping became more than just a welcome diversion from a shitty news cycle. It is a reminder of who I am.
I am a Man of Action. (see also: Hunter S. Thompson)
I almost forgot.
After years of on-a-mission excess in my early twenties that left my soul bruised, bloodied and raw, I found shelter in a new faith, a family, and a community that has kept me penned in. It was a deliberate choice. I had gone too far and didn’t trust myself anymore—I needed to be confined and I needed limits.
I still live there in that safe place–a heavier, softer, far less sensual person than I was thirteen years ago. I’ve positioned myself smack-dab in the most sober and stable environment on the face of the earth. Oh sure, I’m healthier (mentally and physically), my relationships are solid, and I’m financially stable. I like to think I’ve evolved. In some ways I’m certain I have.
My circle of friends is now full of other women who have only ever slept with one man in their entire lives, and who have never so much as sipped a drink of alcohol (much less even considered trying any illegal drugs). I’ve spent more than a decade trying to erase any semblance of the fucked up girl that found her way to Austin, Texas after a colossal series of failures and a downward spiral of self-destruction that is the stuff of legends.
But my experiences weren’t all bad. In fact, some of that shit was good. Really good. I saw and did and felt and fucked some amazing things back in the day. And I have a right to those memories. I have a right to make more of them. I’ve never been able to learn vicariously through anyone else, and Michael Muhammad Knight’s book reminded me that that might not actually be a bad thing.
The bad experiences I had—the ones that had sent me running into the safe haven of my new life—were also accompanied by highs. Would I trade my present even keel to go back there and swing wildly between them again? No. But maybe…just maybe…I don’t have to choose between a life of utter mayhem and a life of vanilla-flavored motherhood. I’m almost forty. No one would blame me for giving up and falling gently into suburban decay. But I don’t think that’s what I want to do.
I know it’s not.
Knight’s book did one other thing to me. It made me jealous. I found myself feeling overwhelmed by envy at certain points because of the freedom he has to lay his shit out there and tell the world to take it or leave it. I’ve invested far too much in my family, my kids’ futures, my activism, and my employer to go shooting off my mouth-keyboard with stories that would make people question my sanity/humanity/judgment/ability to operate a motor vehicle. In other words, I’m chickenshit.
Oh, but the stories I could tell.
I keep promising myself… someday. When I’m an old lady and most of the people who would care are dead, I can purge. Get it all out there and lay it out in the bold sunlight and force people to look at it. I can revel in their discomfort and laugh at their awkward reactions to stark, bald-faced, unapologetic honesty about who I am and what I’ve done. Some day, I can do what Michael Muhammad Knight gets to do.
Until then, I’m going to resurrect the Man of Action. The poor fellow has been buried in the back of my closet for far too long. It’s time to take him out, give the sonofabitch a shave and a shower, and let him have a little fun again.
And I’m going to read some more of Knight’s books.