Despite having studied Islam and despite having studied in a Muslim country for 4 months, I have only really been on the inside of a mosque once. It was a field trip to Casablanca, an otherwise uninspiring city in Morocco, where we were given just enough time to become completely stupefied by the colossal House of God. I have been in mighty cathedrals, awe-inspiring temples and breath-taking churches around the world, and every time I step into a house of worship I find myself more focused on the majesty of humanity than on the power of God. But neither a mosque, nor a synagogue nor a temple need be finely decorated or daringly built to perform its function.
This is the plight of the little mosque not far from my host family’s house, a simple, dusty box about a story high with a tall--well sure, let’s call it a minaret--modestly competing with the mango trees that surround it. Every morning around 4:30 the call to prayer wakes me with such volume it is as though Allah himself is sitting with me under my mosquito net. It is not as melodical as what I have heard in the Arab world, but the Imam holds his own with his little megaphone. I see my host father perform his abulations many times during the day and hiking off to the mosque, often followed by older women wrapped in sparkling hijabs.
Once, when I was drawing, my host father asked to flip through my notebook and found a short poem I had written in Arabic. “Dieu merci que to sait ca!” He exclaimed, “On va aller a la mosque!” This is the not the first time I had been invited to pray at the mosque. My family has confused my interest in Arabic for piety, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sidestep a little prayer at some near point in the future.
The moment came last Wednesday when my host sister and brother, Niamatou and Ousman, were preparing to go to the mosque and invited me to join. They led me over to the section of the courtyard where my host father usually performs abulations and Niamatou began to wash. “Ta tete!” she said pointing at my head, then pointed at hers, which was wrapped. I disappeared into my room and returned with a scarf, which I wrapped around my naked cornrows to present myself anew to the 13-year-olds. Pleased, Niamatou told me to sit, and then both children proceeded to show me how to wash myself: Hands and feet three times, mouth three times, inside the nostrils three times, the face three times and the head once. They giggled at how awkwardly I handled it, what with my gimp thumb and lack of expertise with regards to blowing water out of my nostrils.
I followed them down the path towards the mosque and Ousman broke step with us to enter on the men’s side. Niamatou led me to the women’s entrance where we discarded our shoes and came to stand on a stiff mat at the back of a small, divided room. There were only a few other women there with us, and the sheet that separated us from the men was thin and poorly hung, begging for a curious child to peek around to the other side. I could hear the imam’s voice mumbling in muffled but clean Arabic, and there was just enough light for me to see Niamatou’s bare feet beside me and the sequins on the hijabs of the women in from of us.
I knew the basics, but for me, this was a game of imitation. I bent when the other women bent, knelt when the other women knelt and bowed when they bowed. Up, down, up down. The worshippers were responding to some queues in the imam’s incantations that I wasn’t privy to. At one point I nearly fell over, and Niamatou, bless her soul, could not stop herself from giggling uncontrollably. At another point I stood up too fast and Niamatou grabbed my arm and yanked me down to the floor. Woops.
I have never been one for prayer, but with the hum of the imam’s voice, the cool, barely lit room and the slow up/down of the ritual, I found myself very relaxed. When it was finally over, about half an hour, I followed Niamatou out of the mosque to greet the five or so older women who had just finished praying. I took each of their hands and dispensed practiced greetings, mimicking the way they touched their faces after taking my hand. Presently, Niamatou eagerly steered my back down the path to the compound and as we walked a fat, orange harvest moon climbed up over the village. I felt very at peace.