The invitation

I was sitting on the flimsy mattress folded out from the loveseat in Grandma’s extra room when my cell phone rang. It was a local number I didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Corinna?” It was a man’s voice.

“Yes?” I replied.

“It’s Raj!”

It was the older gentleman to whom I had given my cell phone number at the first Texas mosque. I pictured his handlebar mustache.

His enthusiasm was contagious. “Raj!” I cried back.

He explained that he was calling on behalf of his family. They would like to invite me to their Eid festivities, which were approaching. They planned to attend the special service at the mosque Wednesday morning and afterwards gather at his daughter’s home for a meal. Would I like to meet them at the mosque and then caravan back to their place? I told him that sounded excellent.

I had also learned of another Eid celebration, this one arranged by the North Texas Islamic Association, which would be held at the Dallas Convention Center the day before I met Raj and his family. I hadn’t observed the Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan that honors the last day of fasting. Now I would celebrate double.

When I made my plans to travel to Dallas, I hadn’t realized the significance of the Eid Al-Adha. I had seen it on my calendar—it was obviously big enough to make it on my mass-produced At-A-Glance Monthly Planner—but I didn’t realize that it is arguably the most important date of the year for Muslims. That it coincided with my trip was either dumb luck or the hand of Allah.

Aside from the two Eids, Islam has only one other major holiday: Muhammad’s birthday—though if and when to observe it is not universally agreed upon. Some Muslims opt not to celebrate it, believing its recognition implies a level of devotion that threatens the basic monotheism of the faith. Among those who observe the holiday, there’s disagreement about which day to honor. Sunnis generally recognize one date while Shiites tend to prefer a time several days later. With the Eids, it’s different. Everyone gets on the same page—though festivities still might not coincide exactly, most are within a few hours depending on what country’s clock celebrants are observing.

Eid al-Adha is all about the unity of people—and not just of Muslims with one another. It commemorates an incident that appears in the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament: when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Only in the Quran, the boy is Abrahams’ son Ishmael (whose mother is Hager) instead of Isaac (whose mother is Sarah). In both cases, God stops Abraham just before carrying out the act and lets him kill a ram instead. Muslims believe that their ancestry can be traced back to Abraham through Ishmael, binding them with Jews and Christians who both claim this patriarch. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, memorializes the common root of the three major monotheistic faiths. The holiday also coincides with the end of the Hajj, so that as the pilgrims gather en mass in Mecca, Muslims are gathering all over the world with them.

As I approached the convention center by car, I could see a few police officers stationed at various pedestrian entrances. I had been conditioned by my time in post-9/11 D.C. to expect heavy security at busy gatherings, especially those involving what might be considered a “hot-button” topic. I thought about the annual Pre-tribulation Conference held in a Dallas hotel not far from here and the damage that could be done by one crazed fundamentalist bent on hastening the onset of the rapture. But this show of force didn’t appear to be anything more than what you might expect to see for simple crowd control at a Bon Jovi concert. I wondered if decisions regarding safety measures were dependent on who might be the target of attacks.

Shiite

The Greek Orthodox service began. Like Catholicism, it is built around the Eucharist. The “Divine Liturgy” contains the steps that prepare the bread and wine for the people and the people for it. Outlined in my rulebook, these include: the Small Entrance, Epistle Reading, Gospel Reading, Sermon, Great Entrance, Priest Censing, and Blessing. As I tried to follow along, I couldn’t help but think how from the perspective of a worshipper this experience was indistinguishable from a Catholic program. Sure, the chapel and other accoutrement were fancier than at the simple small-town Catholic Church I had attended, but that was superficial.

It was the same with Sunnis and Shiites: from the point of view of a worshipper, the differences are negligible. In all my digging I had uncovered exactly two. Shiites are likely to rest their arms at their sides during a portion of the daily prayers when Sunnis are encouraged to hold both hands to their chests. In addition, Shiites are less inclined to use prayer rugs. They opt, instead, to pray directly on clean earth and, if praying inside, they may rest their foreheads on a stone during prostration to represent this earth. The differences are so subtle that Shiites can and do make themselves at home within predominantly Sunni congregations, a necessity especially in the United States where their numbers are so few.

Of my list of mosques in the Dallas area, only one was exclusively Shiite. It didn’t promote itself as such, but I was able to confirm it through online message boards. I found no website and the phone number kept going to a busy signal. All I had was an address, which indicated a neighborhood northwest of downtown. I set out one afternoon to find the place. I had done this before with another “mosque” on my list, only to be led to a tiny house indistinguishable from all the other tiny houses in a low-income neighborhood. It was either a mistake or this was taking “house of worship” to a whole new level.

I found the Shiite place in a strip mall across from a Loan Star Title Loans. Shiites generally think of their places of worship as “meetinghouses.” As such, they tend to lack the more formal elements of a mosque such as a minaret or a dome. I pulled into a parking space and tried to imagine what the builders of this structure had intended it to be. A dry cleaners? A tax preparation service? I doubt they could have imagined this use.

It wasn’t shy announcing its purpose. A big maroon awning printed with the words: Institute of Quran and Ahlubait. It took me awhile to figure out that last word; I finally realized it was a spelling variation of the more common “Ahl al-Bayt,” which translates as something like “people of the house,” meaning Muhammad’s family members. It’s a reference to the leaders Shiites esteem for being the Prophet’s blood relations.

I tried the door, but it was locked. All the blinds were closed. For now, the building was empty. I got back in the car, thinking what a surprise it was to find this mysterious little outpost of Islam in such a mundane setting. Here, in the middle of Texas, next to a taco joint and donut shop, a long-dead Arabian prophet and his family members are actively honored. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed in keeping with religion in general: that strange domain where divine mystery intersects with the human realm.

Family

“Your grandma tells me you are Christian.”

These were the words spoken to me by Judy, Grandma’s paid helper who comes once a week to do whatever needs doing. She’s a middle-aged woman who is a full-time nanny; she does grandma’s bidding on her day off. Judy and Grandma had just returned from an outing to the doctor. Judy’s statement lingered in the air between us: she put it out there, but I wasn’t quite ready to receive it. Of all my characteristics Grandma might have mentioned, this is what she selected?

“Interesting,” I said. Maybe Grandma had a point: perhaps I was a Christian whether I chose to be or not. It didn’t matter if I accepted Jesus as God. It didn’t even matter if I went to church. Some essence that trumps anything I might believe or do has been passed down through generations. I am Christian because as far back as anyone knows, my family has been Christian.

I don’t know if it was her getting older or my religious explorations but since I had been in town, Grandma’s Christian identity had cranked up a notch. She acted horrified by the fact that I had never in my life attended an Eastern Orthodox service. “How is that possible?” she asked incredulously. You never took me, I wanted to say.

Now that Grandma was almost 90, she had a good excuse for never going to church. She said the service started too early and lasted too long. Standing was expected during certain portions of the ceremony, which she could no longer manage. For these reasons, I gave up on the idea that she and I would attend a service together. It seemed strange to go without her, so I ditched the notion of going at all. I thought it was ironic that of all the faiths and denominations I had visited, I would be missing the one that was perhaps most closely associated with my family. I made my peace with this fact. Then, early one Sunday morning, Grandma shuffled into my bedroom in her nighty. “Let’s go to church today,” she said. I looked at her through one squinted eye. I had other plans for that morning, but I wiped them away. If Grandma wanted me to take her to church, by all means, I would do so.

The issue that divides the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church is reminiscent of the main division within Islam. The Orthodox Church refused the authority of the pope, who Catholics considered infallible. Orthodox Christians rejected the notion that a person could possess an essence, passed down by blood or some other invisible source of transference, which made his relationship to the divine more profound than that of an ordinary person.

This same idea has been hotly contested among Muslims, and it created the Sunni vs. Shiite rift. After Muhammad’s death, a dispute erupted over who should become the next leader of the ummah. Some believed Muhammad had intended his successor to be his cousin Ali, who had been a faithful member of the ummah from the beginning. No one could deny Ali’s loyalty, but others thought Muhammad had specifically wanted to avoid appointing a leader who was related to him by blood. Perhaps he feared his legacy would become like a monarchy where leaders who ascend based on a birthright are assumed to possess an intangible quality that makes them special. This could threaten the equality among members he worked so hard to establish and inspire a devotion that should be reserved for Allah alone. People in this camp believed Muhammad would want his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to take over.

Sister

At the inner-city mosque that broke off from the Nation of Islam, the imam stood to address the room. He sported a trim beard and skull cap. Words didn’t just slide out of his mouth and tumble to the floor, they leapt and danced and marched. “People educate their minds, but they don’t educate their hearts,” he declared.

Muhammad’s guidance for how leaders are to address gatherings is to “speak from the heart.” I noticed that talks given in mosques had a stream-of-consciousness quality to them. They tended to be looser and more spontaneous than speeches I had heard at the worship places of other faiths. This one possessed that same quality, but was delivered in an oratory style reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you want to change your life, you have to change your heart,” the imam said. He paused to let that sink in. This congregation, perhaps more than any I had visited, lived by those words. Every Saturday and Sunday, they operate a program called “Feed Our Neighbors” in which the parking lot transforms into a food distribution center. Pictures on the website show the down-and-out crowd waiting in a line stretching up the street. By some estimates, they hand out 20,000 meals a year. Though far from affluent, this congregation stays true to Muhammad’s instruction to help the needy. The imam took a deep breath and scanned the audience with an intense gaze. “Expand the heart…and you expand the mind!”

By the time we were ready for the communal prayer, a handful of newcomers had shifted the demographics of the room. Before, it had been 100 percent African American, now a small percentage were something else—from various places in the Middle East. I imagined they worked downtown and had found this mosque both convenient and compatible with their needs. As we went through the prayers and my forehead made contact with the floor, I let the last traces of worry melt into the ground.

Our bodies were positioned towards Mecca, but what we were really facing was the little structure in Mecca called the Kaaba. Long before Muhammad was born, the Kaaba had been used as a communal shrine to the various gods worshipped by the different tribes who lived in the region. Muhammad’s message of a single, unified community, or ummah, relied on the unity of the monotheistic one-God concept and his objective became to bring to the Arabian people this fundamental notion promoted by the Jews and Christians before him. When the idea of monotheism gained enough traction in the region, Muhammad repurposed the Kaaba by tossing out all the icons it contained and dedicating it to the one and only Allah.

On my way out of the mosque, I stopped at the information area and picked up a zakat form. I thought if I was going to make a charitable donation, one of their programs would be a worthy recipient. I looked more closely only to see what I thought was an appeal for contributions was actually a zakat application. This was the first I had seen anything like it. Anyone could take one and request financial assistance. The applicant had to specify why aid was needed, circling from a list of options that included housing, electricity, gas, water, telephone, food, transportation or other.

“Sister!” someone called. I turned. It was the friendly man in white from earlier; he was calling me sister. “Come back and visit again.”

Other mosque

I arrived at the mosque that also traced its origins to the Nation of Islam’s Mosque 48.

It looked to me as if it had once been a single-story house with a big yard. Downtown had swallowed it up and spit it out. Now the yard was a concrete parking lot and the house had been transformed with additions and a paint job of vaguely Arabian scroll-work. A high iron fence ran the entire perimeter of the property distinguishing it from the empty lots and boarded up storefronts.

I parked on the street and put my headscarf in place. Sitting in the car with the engine off, I realized how anxious I felt. Throughout this entire journey from Christianity to Islam, I never set out for a place of worship without experiencing nervousness in my belly. Some of it was due to the logistics: locating the right building, getting myself through the proper entrance, and finding a suitable seat—all without inadvertently offending anyone and, ideally, maintaining a modicum of dignity. The bigger part of my uneasiness had to do with the fear of feeling like an outsider. I worried I wouldn’t be welcome—or, worse, treated with contempt.

Today’s anxiety had been higher than normal from the get-go. I started to feel it even before I left Grandma’s apartment. It’s hard enough when what you think makes you suspicious is invisible but quite another when your body is wrapped in it. In fact, by the time I was ready to exit the car, I realized the sensations in my chest were bordering on full-blown panic. I closed my eyes and took several lung-busting deep breaths.

I walked around the building and through the first door I saw. It was ajar and led to a little hallway that dead-ended into a bulletin board crowded with notices. From there, I could have gone left or I could have gone right. Doors hung in every direction; I felt like a contestant on a game show whose prize hinges on the knob she turns. I heard men’s voices coming from one of the options. I didn’t have the courage to pick any of them. I busied myself reading the announcements.

A man came from around the corner and paused when he saw me. He wore a white-cotton tunic with matching pants and skull cap. His attire looked exotic against his black skin, but something about the way it came together was uniquely American.

“Can I help you?” he asked, smiling. His pretty teeth matched his outfit.

“I’m here for Jummah,” I said.

“Great!”

His warm demeanor gave me a boost of confidence. I explained I wasn’t Muslim but that I was learning about Islam.

I followed him to one of the doors. “The sanctuary’s in here,” he said, pointing. The room was large by private residence standards but modest for a communal gathering space. He pointed to the back, “That’s where the sisters sit. You should go in because it starts soon, but feel free to ask me any questions at the end.” Slipping off my shoes and tucking them on a shelf by the door, I thanked him.

Several men were sitting at the front of the room and a few women were at the back. The people were oriented at a diagonal—proof that the grid of the city doesn’t always align to the spiritual. I took my place among the ladies. This was the first I had ever sat in the same room as men during prayer, and I wondered if it would be distracting. One of the men stood and did the call to prayer. There was no niche in the wall at the front like in most mosques, so he cupped his hands and sang the words against his palms, helping the sound fill the room. I suppose I had heard this ritual done before, but hadn’t fully realized what it was because I was always in a different room. As men and women continued to arrive, I let the feel of the sturdy floor beneath me ease the remnants of anxiety that still tingled in my limbs.

Nation of Islam

On the days I visited mosques, I never told Grandma what direction I was going. Mostly I headed to neighborhoods north of the city center, which wouldn’t have worried her too much. One Friday I went the opposite direction. My destination was not the suburbs south of downtown, an area comprised mostly of lower to upper middle class African American neighborhoods (and where my mom’s parents had lived). I had my sights set on a section of town that sits in the shadow of the skyscrapers, not far from the grounds where the Texas State Fair is held every year. Here, if one is lucky enough to have a home, it is most likely in a small house or apartment building whose exterior is suffering from years of neglect. It’s also the location of Mosque Number 48 of the Nation of Islam.

When I arrived in Dallas, I called the phone number I had for Mosque Number 48 but it was out of service. I found a website for the place, but most of the pages linked to the national organization with headquarters in Chicago. I learned about “Muhammad’s Economic Blueprint,” a program in which the small daily donations of many participants are pooled, thereby allowing land to be purchased for farming and urban renewal projects. I pushed play on a video of Farrakhan explaining the plan: if everyone gives five cents a day, it will add up to $291 million in one year—as long as 16 million people participate. It’s a solid idea in theory, though maybe not realistic. According to some estimates, the Nation of Islam has fewer than 100,000 members. Regardless, a theme song starts playing automatically with raps and a refrain—“I got five on it”—so cool I listen twice. There are also links to DVDs of Farrakhan’s lectures I can purchase including one entitled The Origin of the White Man and the Making of the Devil.

Specifics regarding Mosque Number 48 were harder to find. I did learn that it had been established in 1968. A street address was provided, but the usual details I had grown accustomed to seeing such as a prominent display of the time of Friday’s Jummah service were not in evidence. I found no mention of the five daily prayers, much less a schedule based on local times like so many mosque websites provide. However, I did see a phone number. I checked it against the number I had and found they were the same. I tried it again thinking I might have dialed incorrectly, but I got those familiar three tones and the recorded voice saying ‘sorry’.

From what I’ve read and people I’ve talked with, doubts exist about whether members of Nation of Islam are “true” Muslims. Most of the criticism stems from the fact that the organization doesn’t appear to emphasize the five pillars: saying the shahada statement of faith, daily prayers, fasting for Ramadan, the once-in-a-life time visit to Mecca called Haj, and giving zakat to the less fortunate. I suppose, if true, these are valid complaints though one might question how closely individuals from other versions of Islam adhere to these tenets. What seems to me more troubling and fundamentally at odds with Muhammad’s message is the Nation of Islam’s stance on race. White people are forbidden to join and most of the rhetoric focuses on the financial and spiritual empowerment of African Americans exclusively.

This is inconsistent with Muhammad’s ideas. In addition to issues of social justice, Muhammad advocated for the dissolution of tribal affiliations. His vision was of a single “ummah,” or community, comprised of individuals bound together by ideals that transcended earthly characteristics such as family ties or skin color or gender or wealth or age. He was able to realize the system he imagined, if only on a small scale, when he cobbled together the five tribes of his adopted hometown of Medina, three of which were Jewish, into a confederation. His was a “super tribe” whose members represented the diversity of the region.

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.