I followed Mandisa out to the hall and up the stairs to the mosque’s main floor. I could see through to the main sanctuary. Men and older boys were milling and chatting as casually as the women downstairs.
We entered a room that looked like a makeshift library. Shelves filled with books and pamphlets lined the walls. Mandisa shut the door and we sat across from one another at a table. Mandisa looked very serious and I wondered if my Islamic instruction was to begin promptly. She seemed to be considering where to start when the door opened and a third woman joined us. The latecomer was as drab as Mandisa was colorful. She wore a solid grey caftan with an extra snug topper; not one hair peeked out. Her scarf was the same grey material as the rest of the outfit, as if she had made both pieces on her own. I wondered about the fabric she had used; it looked rough. When she got close, I could see sweat beading across her brow and upper lip as if she had just completed a physically demanding task. I didn’t know it right then, but the teacher I had been looking for had finally made her entrance.
Mandisa introduced the new woman, giving me her name and her country. I recognized her name immediately from my Islamic reading: it was the same as one of Prophet Muhammad’s most beloved female family members. Among Muslims, disagreements abound over which of his relations were closest to the Prophet, but this was a woman whose significance and goodness is undisputable. Every Muslim holds Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, in high esteem.
“Fatima!” I said because I recognized it. The way it came out, I realized it might seem as if I thought we had met before.
She smiled. She understood. “You know it.”
I nodded. Her country, on the other hand, I knew little about. I had never met anyone from there. I hated to admit it but, in my mind, its name was synonymous with violence.
As Mandisa hunted the shelves for literature I could take home, Fatima beamed at me—as if I was an answer to her prayers, as if she had been waiting for me to come into her life not vice versa. “I am so happy. Allah makes all things better. You will see.” It occurred to me that this meeting was not as haphazard as I had assumed.
Mandisa handed over recent copies of an American Muslim magazine and Fatima invited me to return to the mosque the following day. She told me that classes are held for women and children in the afternoon. She repeated several times, “I will be there. ‘Insha’Allah.’ God willing.” I thought she was hedging, perhaps giving herself a little wiggle room in case she decided not to show. I fought my impulse to ask, “What happens if you aren’t there? Who will help me?”
The night prayers were about to begin and the three of us hurried back downstairs. Women were congregating in a small room adjacent to where we had eaten. This one was free of furnishings and the floor had extra-plush carpeting. I asked Fatima if she thought it would be okay if I joined. Of course, she said. She would do the prayers on her own later, but I should go. Wait, she said, fix your hijab first. She tucked my bangs into my headscarf like a doting mother.
The women were lining up shoulder to shoulder. I got in next to the younger of the two Pilipino women; the older was nowhere to be seen. In this room, the carpet had designs like little built-in prayer rugs to indicate where to stand. The orientation of the main squiggle put us with our backs to the windows. A man’s voice from upstairs played from small speakers hidden in the ceiling. I didn’t know the words, but I recognized the way he spoke them. All the women bowed. I followed along. We dropped to our knees. We pressed our foreheads to the ground. We sat. We stood. We did it all over again.