Solitary and silent in the grotto –
Surrounded by broken stone –
An argument broke out in Khalil’s heart
Between himself and himself alone.
Khalil Martin, born Paul Henry Martin, looks at peace as he sips his tea and contemplates where to begin the story of how he came to embrace Islam at the age of twenty-eight. “I was born in Woking in 1951”, Khalil explains. “I didn’t come from a religious family. My parents found that religious people were self-righteous and overbearing”. He pauses. “They owned a successful shop in the town centre that sold high quality clothing. They were very aspirational”. It’s clear from our conversation that Khalil has a strong inclination to philosophical musings and introspection. This same tendency also seemed to define his youth.
As a twenty-year-old economics student at Exeter University, Khalil was unsure about his future. He had chosen to study economics largely due to his father’s influence, but his head swam with profound questions of belonging and purpose. At the end of his first year, he thought that sociology and philosophy might better satisfy his spiritual cravings, which lead to a formative interview with a philosophy professor. The professor asked him a simple question, which triggered somewhat of an existential crisis for Khalil: why do you want to study philosophy? This question left Khalil reeling, and he began to question why he wanted to do anything. A chance encounter with a friend right after the interview set Khalil on a physical and spiritual journey that would last for eight years. His friend said that he was planning to drop out of university and move to Israel to live on a kibbutz. The year was 1971 and the socialist ideal of agricultural communes was popular, especially among young idealists. This idea resonated with Khalil. He decided to pack in his studies and prepare to hitchhike over three-thousand miles from Surrey to Israel.
Khalil had experience with hitchhiking. In his last year of school, he had travelled by train with a group of four friends to Istanbul, where they spent a hashish-filled week in a hippy hotel. On the way home, they made a detour to northern Greece and decided to set up camp among the rocks of a stony beach. They were joined there by two glamorous New Yorkers – a model and a photographer – who were touring around Europe in a vintage Citroën. Like a brilliant damascene pearl encrusted in the inky black sky, a full moon lazily spread its light across the dark Aegean Sea. Nothing marked the passage of time but the rhythmic slapping of fishermen’s oars as their rowboats inched up and down the shoreline. Illuminated by the flickering fire, the New Yorkers showed the boys the tattoos covering their hands, which they had given themselves using a matchstick and a needle wound with thread that they would dip in India ink then pierce the skin. They gave Khalil his own tattoo on his wrist as a permanent reminder of that powerful yet fleeting moment.
And so Khalil set off in search of more moments like that. It was difficult to make travel plans in those days given the lack of internet, but Khalil had heard that there was no land crossing between Lebanon and Israel since the border was closed. His plan was to try to cross the Mediterranean by boat, but it was the middle of winter by the time he made it to Greece and so all the ships had already left the port, leaving him with no option but to keep on travelling. Khalil’s mantra at the time was to work as little as possible, and travel as much as possible; he eventually fell into a lifestyle in which he would work and save up money, then stretch out his earnings for as long as he could by eating cheaply, sleeping rough and hitch-hiking. He eventually found himself at the Lebanese border with only ten pounds to his name. He was able to get a twenty-four-hour transit visa, which gave him enough time to get to the Port of Tripoli. Once there, he approached the captain of a small Finnish vessel and asked for a job. He was immediately set to work as a deckhand, cleaning and mooring. The ship would travel between Lebanon and New York, calling at ports all around the world along the way.
“I am looking for myself and I am looking for my place in the world”, Khalil used to respond when asked why he was travelling; he felt that his life lacked purpose and believed that he would stumble across it somewhere overseas. Khalil lost track of time at some point during his travels, but he says that he never spent more than three months at a time in the same place. On reflection, he says that he never felt at home, nor did he ever feel at peace, nor did he come any closer to finding his place in the world. One of his most powerful memory is of working on the ship’s deck during a storm: on a matchstick surrounded by nothing but the vast, foreign ocean and buffeted by powerful winds, he said that he felt truly vulnerable. In that moment – just like on that beach in northern Greece – he felt connected to something larger than himself, but which he could not yet name. Seven years of aimless contemplation passed by and fatigue gradually began to wear away his initial sense of romanticism. The only way to contact his parents was by postcard, so he made occasional visits home where they would ask, “where is this all heading?” At twenty-seven years-old, he was beginning to ask himself the same question. Khalil remembered the resolution he had made in Exeter to travel to Israel and work on a kibbutz. For want of a better idea, he headed straight for Jerusalem to fulfil this goal.
On his first morning in Jerusalem, Khalil awoke with a foreign feeling. It was as though somewhere within the walls of that ancient city there was a spiritual energy that was invigorating him. He decided to search for its source by visiting all the locations of Biblical significance that he could remember. As the sun started to set over Jerusalem, casting long shadows across the earth, Khalil found himself on the Mount of Olives – a mountain ridge east of the city. He came across the Church of Pater Noster, where according to the Christian canon, Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciplines in a grotto underneath the church. Khalil struck up a conversation with a priest and told him about what he was looking for. The priest said that he could tell that Khalil was not a typical tourist and told him that he could remain after sunset, when the church would usually close its doors to visitors. So, once everyone had left, Khalil had the sanctuary to himself. He made his way to the grotto and began to mediate. He thought deeply about his entire life up to that point and his search for purpose.
Solitary and silent in the grotto – surrounded by broken stone – an argument broke out in Khalil’s heart between himself and himself alone. “You’ve spent seven years in the pursuit of truth, but this pursuit has been fuelled by your ego”, he thought. “At no point have you truly submitted yourself to your creator and asked for help”. In an instant, his heart was flooded with conviction and Khalil knew that his life had changed forever. It was dark when Khalil left the sanctuary. As he walked back down the hillside, a lady half-shrouded by darkness beckoned for him to come closer. In broken English, she told Khalil to follow her so that he could meet her sheikh. In a state of surrender and confusion, Khalil obliged and was led through the dimly-lit streets. Eventually they turned
off down an alley and she directed him to a house where the sheikh’s daughter was waiting on the steps to welcome him in. Khalil took off his shoes and was shown into a sitting room. After a couple of minutes, a man appeared and said, “what can I do for you, my beloved?” Khalil was shy and embarrassed; he felt like an intruder. “How does one find the truth”, Khalil asked tentatively. The sheikh told him that he would need a guide: “Keep on seeking and you will find. Keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you”. Still nervous, Khalil spoke with the sheikh for a few more minutes until he felt that it was polite to leave.
The profundity of what had happened that evening only struck Khalil once he had returned to his hostel. The door had quite literally been opened for him after seven years of searching in vain. For the next two days, Khalil was confined to his hostel bed by a fierce fever. He knew nothing about Islam or the sheikh; all he knew for a fact was that he had asked for help and someone had responded. He realised that this was his only opportunity. And so, on the first day of Ramadan, Khalil decided that he was prepared to submit himself entirely to the will of Allah. He went back to the sheikh and asked if he could be his student. The sheikh initially refused, saying that he needed a clear sign from Allah, but with some persistence he was allowed to move into the small living quarters beneath the house to learn from the sheikh. Khalil quickly took to his new spiritual routine of fasting, praying and studying. During the day, he and the other students would study the sheikh’s teachings and in the evenings the sheikh would answer any questions that they had. It was here that Khalil adopted his new name as a practicing Muslim. After three months, Khalil felt that he was finally ready to return home. He now realised that his place in the world is not physical but spiritual and his only desire is to live an ordinary life in keeping with Muslim values. Khalil began to work in the family’s shop in Woking, which he now runs, and kept in touch with the sheikh by post.
“I wasn’t very engaged with the Muslim community here in Woking to begin with”, Khalil recalls, finishing the last of his tea. “I suppose I was somewhat of an oddity since I was convert – or revert, as some like to say, since no child is born except upon fitrah. But after a couple of years I was asked to join the management committee”. Since his conversion, Khalil has married and raised two children. I suddenly feel compelled to ask him a question: “in hindsight,
would you have done anything differently?” “No”, he replies. “‘Hold fast, all together, to the rope of Allah’”.