Raj

At the mosque, some of the women who entered skipped the socialization and set about praying. They came in with an air of determination and completed a series of rakahs on their own before settling down to listen to the Imam. I noticed on the monitor some of the men doing the same. At first I thought I had missed an instruction to begin but eventually I realized they were either catching up on previous prayers or just doing extras.

Now we stood. A few of the more elderly, including my neighbor, stayed seated but the rest of us came shoulder to shoulder. A couple of women acted as the prayer police and instructed us to fill gaps and move in closer. Everyone, including the seated, arranged and scooted until even the most finicky in the group looked pleased. We were squeezed together too tightly for my papers to be spread in front of me; I gathered, folded, and tucked them away. I’d wing it.

Guided by the Imam’s voice, we went through the rakahs together. The Imam narrated long portions for us and then fell silent so we could recite our own parts. When memory failed me, I repeated my favorite short phrases—“Allah Akbar” and “Bismillah”—again and again or I concentrated on the sound of the suras being whispered all around me. I enjoyed the process of synchronized prayer so much that I was disappointed when it came to an end at the end of the second rakah. We turned our heads to the left, and then to the right. “Thank you,” I whispered in each direction because I felt privileged to have joined this group for worship.

I was in the car about to back out of my parking space when I heard a knock. I turned to see an impressive mustache, handle-bar style, in my passenger side window. It belonged to the face of an older gentleman. I pressed the button to make the glass come down. “My wife tells me you are learning Islam.” Behind him was my prayer neighbor in her sari.

He asked if I had Eid plans and I told him I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what day Eid was or how it was celebrated.

“Please, may I have your phone number? We would like to invite you.”

I wrote my name and cellphone number on a piece of paper and handed it to him. I explained I was visiting my grandmother in Dallas, that’s why my area code was weird.

I asked his name and he said something I couldn’t quit grasp. I hesitated and he said, “Please, call me Raj.”

The women’s side

On the women’s side of the mosque, I could tell more men were showing up from the shadows against the frosted walls. The whole point was communal prayers and I started to feel miffed at being quarantined in this glass box just because I was born female. It took me back to being a little girl on the playground, left out of a game. It made me angry for all the women unfairly passed over for a raise or a promotion. I was getting a little hot under the hijab. Thankfully, an older woman in a beautiful sari walked in. Her presence pacified my blossoming resentment. Suddenly I was glad she and I had our own space without any strange men lurking around.

The woman plucked a plastic chair from against the wall and dragged it to where I was sitting. She smiled at me and pointed to the wall on my left. At first I didn’t understand why, and then I realized she was trying to tell me I was facing the wrong direction. I hadn’t oriented myself toward Mecca. I was looking some place much less important, possibly toward Albuquerque. I was a little embarrassed given the fundamental nature of this guideline and the compass sewn into my prayer rug, but I shrugged it off and set everything right.

“I’m learning the prayers,” I said, motioning toward the papers.

She grinned and set her chair inches from me. Her head scarf was loose, revealing lovely salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a bun. “Very good,” she said, nodding appreciatively.

More women arrived. One turned on the flat screen that gave us a video feed of the men’s section. It focused mostly on the front of the room where the Imam was standing, but you could also see men and some boys as they entered the frame and found places to sit on the floor. Once they settled into position, the picture showed just the backs of their heads.

The Imam began to speak English mixed with Arabic. The gist of his talk, from the parts I could understand, was about the upcoming Eid holiday commemorating the annual Haj in Mecca. He encouraged all those with means to buy a goat, sheep, or cow for the needy. Those who did so would receive “more reward.” I listened closely to see if he would elaborate on the logistics of said purchase and if he was referring to some sort of benefit in an after-life, but his train of thought was swallowed by a long stream of Arabic.

Women continued to arrive throughout the Imam’s speech. Many wore colorful saris but others sported the more somber caftans I recognized from home. They would greet one another and find places to sit and chat quietly. Some had small children clinging to the folds of their garments. It reminded me of being on the women’s side of the orthodox synagogues I visited in Los Angeles. Privacy afforded us an informality that wasn’t apparent on the men’s side. Knowing we could see them but they couldn’t see us bestowed a bit of advantage. We were like the higher-ups who can watch an interrogation from behind the one-way mirror.

 

My Pakistani cowboy

Mine was the only car so far in the mosque parking lot. I selected a space in front of what appeared to be the main entrance. Though the building had other doors, these were larger and a nearby sign that read “Notice: All Activities Monitored by Video Camera” gave it an air of formality.

As I waited, I arranged the scarf on my head. Growing up, I had always resented what I saw as Dallas’ feminine ideal of beauty. One had to be pageant-ready: hair shellacked into a “do;” figure accentuated; makeup clearly visible on face. I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror. The standard I was trying to live up to now was so far from any of those things. I had to admit it was kind of a relief.

A giant pickup roared into the parking lot. It was a shiny Ford, too new for plates. For an instant I was terrified that I would be witness to a hate crime. I thought about ripping off my hijab and fleeing the scene. With my doors locked and one hand on the key, I watched as a young man got out of the truck. He wandered casually to the mosque entrance. I could tell he meant no harm.

My first official Texas Muslim and he looked the part: new-but-faded blue jeans and pointy-toed shoes that resembled boots. It was a ranch-hand-meets-urban-hipster look.

I got out of the car. “Hello,” I called to him.

He was extremely friendly. He told me he was from Pakistan and specialized in the import/export business. His job was to locate gently used cars and arrange to put them on big ships and taken to different countries. I asked if he thought other women would come for the prayer service and he told me normally they did. He pointed out the entrance for women: a separate door near the main doors and another around the corner.

As we chatted, a third car swung into a spot marked reserved and came to rest at our knees.

“It’s the Imam,” my friend said cheerfully.

Through an expanse of windshield, I spied my first Imam. He had a beard the color of Ronald McDonald’s wig. It was either a dye job gone wrong or an excellent ploy to soften his image. His mouth was set in a no-nonsense expression but, surrounded by all that flaming hair, it was hard not to interpret it as a smile.

The Imam unlocked the mosque’s front doors and I waved goodbye to my Pakistani cowboy.

Directly inside my entrance, was a room for washing. Along one wall was a trough lined in marble tiles. In front of each spigot was a perch for sitting.

I removed my shoes and placed them on shelves for that purpose. I sat at one of the “wadu” stations and turned on the faucet. I let the water trickle on my toes and then I leaned forward and washed my arms and hair line the way Fatima had instructed. I was gentle on my face, hoping to keep on the moisturizer with sunblock I applied earlier. I cranked the towel dispenser and patted dry.

Beyond a set of glass doors sat the ladies’ worship area, which was a square of space carved from the larger square of the mosque and cordoned off with frosted glass walls. Masking tape applied directly to the thick green carpet divided the room into long rows. It wasn’t obvious to me which way to face, but I thought the lines were a clue. Back in the washroom, I had plucked a prayer rug from a stack offered by the door. It had a little built in compass in the center with a needle that bounced around. Now I spread it on the floor and plopped on top of it. From my bag, I pulled out the cheat sheets I had used to practice my prayers with Fatima. I arranged them on the floor around me. I needed them as a reference, especially if I would be doing the prayers on my own.

A mosque in Texas

I flew to Dallas and moved in with my grandma. She still lives in the same general part of town—just north of downtown—as she did when my grandpa was alive. Only she’s traded the swanky townhouse for a little unit in a “retirement community.” I suppose as far as old folk’s homes go, her’s is upscale. The building itself has a Mediterranean feel with cream-colored stucco exterior, dark wood accents, and lots of archways. Windows look out at gurgling water features surrounded by greenery with a tropical vibe. It all but screams: this is not a last stop on the journey to the grave, it’s an exotic holiday!

Grandma’s apartment has an extra room with a pull-out sofa. She’d had a helper make the bed and clear a space in the closet for my things. Grandma knew about my project and why I had come to town. I had explained it to her by phone several times, slowly and clearly. Since my last visit, she’d given up driving, though she kept a car in the parking garage for others to use. She kept saying I could use it to drive myself to “synagogues.” I never knew if this was an honest slip or wishful thinking. As I would correct her and explain the difference, her eyes always took on a look of distress. I couldn’t tell if she was concentrating to hear me or if she didn’t like what I was saying. I had two main goals for my time in Dallas: do whatever Grandma wanted and worship at mosques. It occurred to me that the one thing Grandma might want more than anything was for me not to worship at mosques.

The first Friday of my trip, I gave myself an hour to make it to the mosque. The jummah prayers were supposed to begin at 1:30, so I left Grandma’s at 12:30. It was more time than necessary given the distance, but I was anxious about navigating the roads. I had never been a driver in this city, only a passenger. I studied the street map the night before and wrote out each turn in big letters on my day planner. I wanted to proceed deliberately and cautiously. I didn’t want to so much as scratch Grandma’s car.

As I set out, I noticed I was a little nauseous. Now that I was behind the wheel, I realized all my worrying about the streets and directions had been a distraction from what I was really nervous about, which was the destination. I had no idea what to expect. Would it be obvious which entrance I should use? Would other women be there? I had selected this particular mosque to start because it had a website with clear information and a recorded message when I phoned reiterating the time of prayer. I would have preferred to speak to an actual person but as I called the mosques on my list, I realized I was more likely to reach voice mail. In most cases, I would just need to show up at the appropriate time and hope for the best.

From about a mile away, I spotted the dome. It wasn’t huge or fancy, just a simple green-capped cupola at the corner of two main roads in a mainly residential area. I pulled in to the parking lot. The building was situated such that I was able to maneuver the car around its perimeter, observing it from all angles. It wasn’t much more than an oversized cube of cream-colored brick uninterrupted by windows. Black security cameras were affixed at each corner, standing out against the blank canvas of the walls. I considered that it might not be a working mosque at all, but a brilliant art project providing socio-political commentary on being Muslim in Texas.

Big D

I didn’t think I’d have any reason to go back to Dallas for this religious exploration. My plan was to fly directly to Washington, D.C. and wrap it up there. If I needed more experiences worshipping at mosques, maybe I’d pop over to New York or Michigan, states that were known to have sizeable Muslim populations. I didn’t think Muslims and Texas even belonged in the same sentence.

I’d always imagined this narrative would lead me back to the nation’s capital, and I was excited at the prospect. It had been a long time, but I love that place. I was there during 9/11 and it made sense that I would go back in my pursuit of understanding Islam.

Dallas is another story. Once I moved to L.A., I would return to Dallas to visit both sets of grandparents. Whenever I was there, my energy level plummeted and my desire to sleep spiked. I think most people attributed it to my being a teenager, but I knew it was something more. I felt physically unwell in that city. I thought it was too real to be just psychological. I believed there must be an environmental factor, like the air was bad. Even when I got dressed and tried to circulate amongst the upright, I couldn’t shake the lethargy. I never understood how others looked lively with so little oxygen.

I recognize I have a pattern—leave a city and avoid going back—that has been an essential aspect of my explorations. I return to rifle through my emotional baggage and, with the help of a religion, hopefully lighten the load—or at least understand its contents better. But my Dallas baggage was different, I reasoned. With the other locations, my reluctance to return had more to do with who I had been or how I had behaved while living there. I had no beef with the places themselves. Los Angeles and Berkeley are pretty fantastic in my opinion. I was to blame. I felt my fall out with Dallas was the opposite—it was all Dallas’ fault.

But signs were pointing me to Texas. First, my grandma’s health began to fail. Second, I decided I really did need to visit another place besides D.C. to round out my experience. Then I learned that while I was busy looking the other way, Texas had quietly become home to a vibrant Muslim population. In fact, the 2011 U.S. Mosque Survey found that of states with the most number of mosques, Texas now ranks third—behind only New York and California. Measures of attendance show that Texas mosques are cramming in more people than those of any other state. For Friday prayer services, the total number of congregants who show up at Texas mosques is second only to the total number in New York. But when it comes to Eid Prayers, which are the prayers associated with the two highest holidays in Islam, no other state in the country has more congregants attending mosque for worship than the old Lone Star.

Although I didn’t want to, I had to admit that going to Dallas appeared to make sense. According to the mosque survey, the Dallas metropolitan area alone is home to about 40 mosques, a surprising handful of which are newly constructed in the more affluent suburbs north of downtown. Still, it felt weird. First, the ostentatious materialism I associate with Dallas made it seem like a city so at odds with Muhammad’s message of social equality. Maybe I wouldn’t find “real” Islam being practiced in the Big D, but some flashy American version where passages in the Quran are used to justify a closet full of Louis Vuitton bags. Second, my mind kept going to the brand of fundamental Christianity for which Texas is famous. Dallas, after all, hosts the “Pre-tribulation Conference,” an annual affair in which a big group gathers to happily discuss scenarios in which the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem will be obliterated so that the rapture may proceed as laid out in the New Testament. What sort of Muslim community could flourish in that environment? But maybe these factors didn’t detract from the meaning of what I was doing; perhaps they added to it. Maybe my reluctance was all the more reason to go. I suppose I could have gone on hemming and hawing forever, but I finally recognized the missing puzzle piece sitting before my eyes. It was shaped like Texas.

The gap

When he first began to spread his message, Muhammad’s focus was almost entirely social justice. He lived in a region where many prospered from trade while others struggled to meet basic needs. In Muhammad’s time, it was normal for the rich to provide loans to the poor. Equally common were unfair lending practices such as high interest rates and payment schedules that put debtors at a disadvantage. Borrowers who failed to keep up might suffer from another caveat to the agreement: being forced work for their lender on terms dictated by the more powerful party. The households of the wealthy would expand as the disadvantaged lost their freedom, trapped in an indefinite loop of servitude.

Women and children were especially susceptible to this cycle. Custom did not permit women to accumulate resources in their own names or inherit wealth. Even a widow was not the typical recipient of her dead husband’s money. A woman who found herself with no male head of house would have no means of supporting herself or her children. If forced to borrow money, she would almost certainly be unable to pay it back. A needy widow might have no other option but to attach herself to a wealthy household by whatever means possible, even as a slave. Children left with no parents were especially at risk of needing to trade freedom for survival.

Both Muhammad and his beloved first wife Khadija faced circumstances before they met that could have relegated them to lives of subservience. They managed not only to avoid the worst consequences associated with those stations, but to go on to lead happy, prosperous lives. Muhammad lost his parents at a young age, but was raised lovingly in his uncle’s household. Khadija had been widowed, but amazingly defied the status quo by obtaining her deceased husband’s wealth and his thriving trade business. But I think both Muhammad and Khadija lived with the “what if’s” of fates narrowly escaped.

Muhammad didn’t start speaking out for social reforms until after he married Khadija. With her love and support, he argued for changing lending practices and abolishing interest rates so that the poor could have easy access to resources. The wealthy elite hated his ideas, but Muhammad didn’t care. He believed women deserved the ability to accumulate wealth and receive inheritance. He insisted that the rich had a duty to care for the needy. While Muhammad’s message evolved and expanded, it was rooted in these issues that troubled him.

The problems that existed around Mecca during Muhammad’s life are not exclusive to that region or time. All over the globe and across generations, people struggle with the same things. The source of the disadvantage may vary—it might be race or education or illness or age. Women and children continue to make the list almost anywhere you go, though certain laws and government programs help.

After my parents broke up, I suppose my mom and I became a modern-day equivalent of Mecca’s widow and orphan. We landed at the bottom of the barrel resource-wise. Fortunately, we had my grandparents who lived in Dallas as a safety net. My mom’s parents lived in South Dallas, in a mostly African-American neighborhood. My dad’s parents lived north, in a much whiter and ritzier area. My mom and I were constantly driving back and forth between those two parts of town—between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Dallas is the first I was aware of the difference between wealth and poverty. Even today, after living in a handful of other cities with similar income disparities, I still think of Dallas as particularly polarized by income. I attribute this association, at least in part, with the low-income status I shared with my mom when we lived there. Ours was a modest means. But the other part of my association is certainly tied to the “Big D” culture of wearing one’s fortune. The rest of the country has since caught on—thanks to reality television, I fear—but Dallas was ahead of the curve: fancy handbags, head-to-toe designer labels, diamonds the size of ice cubes, cars that cost more than my mom would earn in a decade. Maybe the gap just seems so much wider when that extreme is flaunted.

Insha’Allah

Mostly Fatima and I practiced the passages I would need to perform daily prayers. We would go over the basics: the Tashahod and the Quran’s first sura—both of which are part of every prayer. But she’d also had me print out the phonetic versions of the Qurans last three suras, which are only a few lines each. With these, I would have options for the parts where it was “prayer’s choice.” This was the bare minimum I would need to do prayers right.

Fatima selected what we would practice each day. She would call out the words bit by bit, pausing for me to parrot her. It always reminded me of the famous scene from The Sound of Music where Julie Andrews teaches her young charges the basic components of a song by having them repeat the lines she sings. Only here it was called The Sound of Prayer. Fatima usually sat next to me as we practiced; occasionally, she would move around her apartment, tidying up and checking on her actual children. With my eyes glued to the appropriate cheat sheet, I would try to mimic what she said but sometimes, even after we’d been going over the same line for several minutes, it would turn to mush in my mouth. When that happened, Fatima would get close. It was the only time she was ever stern. “Look at my mouth,” she would instruct because I was always reluctant to take my eyes off the translation. I never thought staring at her lips would help but, somehow, it always did.

I adored practicing short phrases. After the twists and turns of the longer passages, “Alhamdulillah” (praise to God) and “Bismillah” (in God’s name) were like little treats. I wanted to repeat them over and over again. I loved how “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala” felt like marbles rolling on my tongue. Fatima’s favorite phrase was “Insha’Allah” (God willing). It peppered all she said, as natural as breath. She whispered it every few sentences even when discussing something as simple as what she planned to do that evening. But I noticed she said it even more for big things like the approval of her husband’s dissertation. “If that happens, we will be going home soon. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah.”

One afternoon Fatima answered the door looking upset. Her concern was a recent headline about her country: an act of terror had killed a slew of civilians, some American. We sat together in her little living room. “I think it is worse now,” she said, referring to the instability since the death of the ruthless leader. She squeezed her eyes shut. “My country,” she said, swallowing a sob. Tears streamed down her cheeks. My own eyes welled up and I reached for her hand. For several minutes, we stayed like that—just holding hands. I wished for something more to say or do, but I could think of nothing better than to make her pain my own.

Fatima’s country

Just as I was settling in to the routine of attending the mosque class on Sunday’s, Fatima suggested we switch it up. She wanted me to come to her apartment during the week for more one-on-one time. I continued to fasten my headscarf in the rearview mirror, only now I emerged into the busy parking lot of a student housing complex. I felt like Clark Kent making the transition to Superman. I walked the pathways to Fatima’s building in hijab. I wasn’t concerned about running into anyone I knew because I felt unrecognizable. I had never understood why Lois Lane couldn’t tell that her super hero boyfriend was the same guy as her reporter colleague, but it suddenly made sense. Identity is so much bigger than a face.

The personal details about Fatima I had gathered at the mosque were skeletal at best. She had come to the United States for her husband’s graduate studies. She had two little girls. I also knew the basics about her homeland: a colonial past; a ruthless leader, initially supported by the west, brought down in spectacularly grisly fashion; roving bands of militants fighting for control. Its story was similar to at least a dozen other countries in that part of the world.

Now, with time spent just the two of us, I put meat on those biographical bones. Despite my preconceived notions regarding the status of women where she was from, Fatima had managed to obtain an advanced degree living there. She had been a professional working woman before coming to the United States. Her husband’s degree in agricultural sciences was being funded by her country’s government—some aspect of which was obviously working well enough to finance such projects. But her family’s efforts to broaden their horizons came with sacrifice. Since arriving in the U.S. more than five years earlier, they hadn’t returned home once. Both of their little girls had been born here. Their grandmothers back home had never held them.

I had only ever met ex-patriots of countries like hers who fled and had no desire to return. Not Fatima. She longed to go back. She spoke of her homeland with a tenderness some might reserve for the dearest loved one. She showed me pictures on the internet of its most beautiful features. She fed me its popular dishes. She called it “my country.” “This is food we eat in my country.” She and her husband had visited another town in the United States that reminded her of it. “The temperature, the way the air smelled,” she said with a serene smile. “I closed my eyes and I was in my country.”

I wondered how she felt about the ruthless leader who had been killed—if his rule was as bad as the media here had made it seem. She hadn’t been back since his death. Her gaze lowered to the floor, her expression went pensive. She nodded, “It was bad,” she whispered. She told me about a cousin who was executed for carrying anti-government propaganda in his car. “I’m sorry,” I said. I meant for her family’s suffering, but also for whatever role my country may have played in creating the situation. “Thank you,” she replied. I searched her eyes but didn’t see any blame there.

 

Tashahod

Fatima explained that today the children would be practicing saying the portion of the prayer called the Tashahod in Arabic—and that maybe I could read along and get a feel for how it sounded. The Tashahod is a collection of sentences recited as part of all five daily prayers.

In English, the words are straightforward: “All salutations, peace, perfection, omniscience, and prostrations, prayers and blessed deeds are for Allah. The peace of Allah be upon you, O Prophet, and His mercy and blessings. Peace be on us and on all righteous servants of Allah. I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” The phonetic translation cloaks it in mystery, at least to my untrained ear: At-tahiyatu lillahi, was-salawatu wattaiyibatu. Assalamu alaika ayyuhan-nabiyyu wa-rahmatu llahi wa-barakatuh. Assalamu alayna wa-ala ibadi llahi s-salihin. Ashhadu alla ilaha illa llahu wa-ashhadu anna Muhammadan abduhu wa-rasuluh.

Every student took their turn. I listened carefully. A few were too young or too shy and didn’t make it all the way through. Their voices trailed off or their presentation ended in a face-plant on to the table. Fatima gently prodded and corrected. One kid who was a bit older performed exquisitely, his annunciation clear as bell. It sounded beautiful and otherwordly, like the music of a concerto played at double time and backwards.

When the other instructor took over, Fatima and I retreated to the upstairs library. She wanted to explain a little more about the guidelines regarding the Tashahod, so she got a pencil and began to diagram something on a piece of paper. She wrote numbers for each of the daily prayers depending on how many rakahs they required. Starting with the fajr, she created a column: 2, 4, 4, 3, and 4. She explained that what the children were practicing was really only half of the Tashahod; the other half, which some people refer to as the Durud, is another variation of a request for Allah’s mercy and blessings. Next to the 4’s, she wrote: 2, ½, 2, whole. She said after the first two rakahs of these prayers, you recite half the Tashahod, then complete the next two rakahs before reciting the entire Tashahod. For the morning prayer with only 2 rakahs, you can do the entire Tashahod at the end. However, for the maghrib prayer at sunset that only has 3 rakahs, it goes like this: 2 rakahs, ½ Tashahod, 1 rakah, whole Tashahood.

I stared at the marks she was making on the page. I could feel my eyes surrender focus; soon I was watching through two filmy blinds. Maybe it was time to throw in the hijab. Like the other faiths I had explored, the primary ideas weren’t so difficult to grasp, it was all the stuff that had sprouted up around them: the customs and rituals, many of which developed after the main messengers were long gone. A few of the essentials regarding prayer and other behaviors could be found in the Quran, but the rest was based on the daily habits and practices of Muhammad himself as recalled by the people who had known him. This extensive compilation of guidelines called the “Sunnah” supplements the Quran.

Something about the Tashahod being chopped in two pushed me over the edge. I could not believe the intricacy of these procedures. How was any newcomer expected to understand, much less adopt them as her own? Do religious people see how intimidating it is to approach their belief systems? For believers, all these rules and formalities wrap them in a warm, familiar blanket; for an outsider, they create a barrier impossible to penetrate.

Fatima could tell I had hit a wall. I couldn’t take my eyes from the paper. “I think that’s enough for today,” she said. She put her hand on my arm and I reluctantly lifted my gaze. “Don’t worry,” she told me. “Allah wants it to be easy for you.” I tried to smile, but I wasn’t convinced.

For several weeks, I sat in on the children’s class. I got used to arriving in the mosque parking lot, putting on my headscarf, and making my way to the back entrance that led to the classroom. The sound of Arabic as performed by squirmy students grew familiar. I began to recognize certain phrases, and to know what they meant. I wasn’t sure that I could ever put all the pieces together and do the prayers myself, but I tried not to think about that yet.