The women’s entrance at the mosque led into the basement of the building. At the end of a short hall, I came to a rack filled with shoes outside a room where the women were sitting family style at long tables. This must be some sort of party, I thought. I bought a few minutes by very carefully removing my shoes and arranging them on the rack. I wondered if I should remove my head scarf too. By recognizing customs, was I being respectful or deceitful?
I decided to leave my shoes off and my scarf on. I would be as forthright as possible when I spoke to people. I couldn’t help what assumptions were made about me from across a room. I preferred this scenario to the risk of offending.
The women were sitting around the tables talking. I wondered if Mandisa was here yet. I had no idea what she looked like. I made my way to an opening across from two women, one older and one younger. Their faces appeared Asian.
“I’m looking for Mandisa,” I told them.
“From Egypt?” the older one asked. I nodded and she looked around the room. “I don’t think I’ve seen her yet.”
“It’s your first time here?” the younger of the two wanted to know.
I nodded and sat. “I’m not Muslim.”
They seemed not at all surprised.
Someone announced the food was ready; I’d had dinner at home, but I wanted to participate. We filled our paper plates buffet style with rice and chicken and returned to our places.
The two women and I exchanged some basic information while we ate. They were both from the Philippines. The younger was a student. The older was married to a professor and had lived in the states for 20 years. She pointed at the ceiling. “My husband’s upstairs.”
They wanted to know what brought me to the mosque and I explained my quest. I told them that, specifically, I was hoping to learn the daily prayers.
The older woman looked at me sheepishly. “I don’t do them. My husband does, but not me. Maybe when I get old I will do them all the time.” She shrugged. “Not right now.”
“Corinna?” A beautiful face framed by a hot pink scarf was peering down at me. “Mandisa?” She grasped the hand I had extended and wrapped her other arm around me. We hugged and shook hands simultaneously.
Like mine, her clothes were western style pieces that just happened to provide full coverage: an ankle-length skirt and a shirt with sleeves to the wrists. Many of the women wore long caftans, most in dark colors. Some topped off their outfits with regular-looking scarves while others used special wraps with a cut-out for the face. The ways in which the women presented themselves were surprisingly varied.
“Shall we go to the library?” Mandisa asked. Her accent had just a whisper of British; it spoke volumes about the history of colonialism in her country. She seemed sophisticated and fashionable and it suddenly made sense why my other would-be Muslim mentors had fallen through. All along, it was meant to be Mandisa.