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.