Second Eid

The morning after the Eid celebration at the convention center, I had another to attend—this one with my new friend, Raj.

I was supposed to meet Raj and his family at their mosque. The first stop on this Dallas leg of my religious journey, their mosque was the one whose walls were a blank canvas for its security cameras; the second time around, it felt familiar and not at all daunting. I knew the ropes: what door to enter and which direction to face. When I arrived, many women were present but Raj’s wife didn’t appear to be among them. I took a seat and waited.

My thoughts kept going back to the Eid celebration at the convention center. How had I felt being a part of such a large gathering? For that hour or so, I was united, if only symbolically, not just with everyone in the room but with others engaged in the same activity across the world. When I first saw photos of Hajj, I remember being amazed that all those tiny dots around the Kaaba were people. From the vantage of the photographer’s lens, they looked like little bits of something bigger, maybe a single piece of cloth with just minor variations of color and texture. It got me thinking about the irony of unity: you can see it so much more clearly from the outside. At the convention center, I had stitched myself in to the fabric of Muslims, an extension of the cloth around the Kaaba, but it didn’t necessarily feel how it looked: like we were all the same, like we were one monolithic hunk of humanity. I had blended in and gone through the motions but I hadn’t spoken in depth with anyone. If I had, I doubt we would have agreed on all key issues or found that we see the world in the same way. Can we have differences—perhaps even some that are very big—and still be “one”?

Raj’s wife appeared and greeted me with a smile and a loving hug. She introduced me to her middle-aged daughter and her granddaughter, who was in her early twenties. They planted kisses on either of my cheeks. I wasn’t sure I deserved such warmth, but I was happy to receive it. We settled in for the sermon—Raj’s wife in her chair and the rest of us at her feet like she would be giving us a bedtime story. The flat screens showed the orange-bearded imam and the backs of the men’s heads in the main sanctuary.

The imam’s talk was dedicated to an aspect of this holiday I had yet to focus on: the slaughter of animals. It is customary on this day to acknowledge Allah’s willingness to allow Abraham to sacrifice a ram in place of his son by killing an animal. The meat is to be shared with the needy. For Muslims who are unable to perform the slaughter personally, services located in the U.S. or other countries will do the deed on their behalf and ensure its distribution to the appropriate parties. This explained the flyers I had been seeing at various mosques over the last few weeks that said check a box—goat, sheep, or cow—and mail a check.

The imam did not spare us the grisly details. He spoke about the importance of seeing the knife slit the throat, not turning away, coming face-to-face with the reality of this sacrifice. It reminded me of the more gory details from Jesus’ story: the focus on the bloodshed, his wounds and the lashings. It also shares obvious similarities with the Jewish custom of sacrificing animals. I started to worry about what was in store once I went home with Raj’s family. Just a few nights earlier, over dinner with my grandmother and me, my great aunt told us about some old neighbors of hers, recent transplants from Greece, who kept a “pet” goat in their back yard. Every Easter, the goat would vanish, replaced by the smell of smoking meat.

After the service, I followed Raj’s van, filled with his family members, back to his daughter’s house. They seemed lovely, but I had no idea what to expect.

For all I knew, I would be the day’s ceremonial sacrifice…

Convention center

Being alone and a little tentative about joining the public Eid celebration, I decided I would use the convention center’s official parking garage. I followed the signs to the rear of the building where I stopped at the little parking booth. A single cop stood nearby but he seemed unconcerned with the likes of me. At the very least, I had expected to confront a bomb sniffing dog. I was prepared for a snout to run the length of my car’s undercarriage, maybe be asked to pop open the trunk. I paid and they waved me in nonchalantly.

I snaked my way through the cavernous underground and found an available space near the elevators. It was still a little on the early side; only a smattering of cars were here. I turned off the engine and pulled the scarf from my bag. I had swapped my usual one, which was plain white, for a fancier leopard print. In place of the little safety pin I normally used as a fastener, I had a small rhinestone brooch. These tiny things made me feel all dressed up.

A sedan full of people arrived and parked nearby. I watched as members of a family got out, at least three generations worth, from little to grown to frail. The women wore saris with dots of sparkle. I wondered if the people at this event would favor a particular nationality. Technically, all were welcome—but in reality how would that play out? Every faith gave lip service to unity but then most of its members seemed to favor contact with people just like themselves. The women of the family I was watching adjusted the layers of their saris as the men stood patiently. Together they walked to the bank of elevators.

As I made my way to the main floor, I wondered if today’s crowd would be drawn mostly from the well-off suburban Muslims who belonged to congregations north of downtown. I attended Jummah at two mosques with congregants fitting this description. If Dallas was experiencing a mini-boom in mosque construction, here were excellent examples. Both were big, modern structures that had recently been built. For Friday services, their expansive parking lots were filled with nice cars. Inside, the service was shoulder-to-shoulder. The women’s areas were almost identical: a big room above the main sanctuary like a balcony but with a wall of clear glass to allow peeking below. From a vantage point on the floor, the view was of the sanctuary’s ceiling and, where there were windows to the outside, the tops of trees and power lines and sky. It felt like the Muslim equivalent of visiting a mega-church: big and anonymous, at least from the perspective of a newcomer. No one paid much attention to me. I had grown so accustomed to sticking out, that it was a nice change to blend in and go about my business as if I belonged. I worshipped and left, uttering no more than a few pleasantries to random strangers.

At the convention center, the elevator doors opened onto a concourse, a big area next to the exhibition space. Groups were happily chatting; giddy kids bounced around. It seemed as if everyone was holding a piece of candy of the “fun size” variety so prevalent around Halloween. Some adults carried bags of the stuff, passing it out to young and old alike.

I stopped at a table being manned by several women in hijab. They welcomed me, explained that the front half of the center was for men while the back half was for women, and handed me a plastic bag for my shoes. Beyond them, the doors were open to the room where the event was taking place. It was huge, large enough to accommodate four basketball courts perhaps, the kind of space that might normally have booths set up in aisles, with hundreds of visitors wandering up and down, collecting brochures of information. Today, it was utterly transformed. Big panels of Arabic lettering occupied one end, stretching from wall to wall. The concrete floor was checkered with enormous squares of pristine cardboard, each one cordoned off with tape to prevent shoe-clad trespassing. Slices of exposed concrete created aisles for walking. If the organizers of this event were expecting enough people to fill the cardboard, they were planning for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of worshippers. All around, people were seated in little groups like picnickers at a park. Compared to the available real estate, their numbers seemed paltry. I doubted the turnout would be as big as hoped.

Blood ties

The main division within Islam continues to this day, as does the basic question: can a person possess an extraordinary relationship to the divine? Those who might answer “yes” are the Shiites (decedents of the group who wanted Muhammad’s cousin Ali as his successor), and they believe their leaders have been endowed with the living spirit of the Prophet given to them by blood ties that trace back to Muhammad. Like the Catholic Pope, Shiite imams are thought to be sinless and infallible.

Sunnis (who preferred Muhammad’s father-in-law as successor) are those who would disagree. Their leaders are considered religious and political executives. This position is similar to the one held by Eastern Orthodox Christians who define priests and bishops as ordinary people—occupying extraordinary positions. Congregants are still encouraged to kiss the hand of the priest or bishop, though in doing so one should keep in mind that it’s the office being honored.

But as I mentally trace the roots of these theological divisions, they seem to grow too flimsy to understand because doesn’t every faith somehow incorporate the idea that a person can have a special relationship to the divine? Christians agree that Jesus was an incarnation of the divine and every Muslim believes Muhammad brought Allah’s words to earth. So perhaps the issue is not a human’s ability to channel the divine, but whether this quality can exist beyond the originals?

Or perhaps the argument is all just a smoke screen for the very human inclination to possess power and control.

The Greek Church I remember from my childhood is gone. Several years ago, the congregation purchased land just north of downtown and built a new building. The property allowed for a bigger main chapel, as well supplemental structures for social gatherings and classrooms. It also let church leaders mold a fresh identity. They opted not to recreate the white stucco exterior that was so readily identifiable with Greece. Instead, they used brick in a style more broadly Byzantine: arches and columns and the squat domes that speak to the shared history of a huge region. The strategy seems to be working. Recent years have seen a spike in attendance, filled out by congregants from a wider spectrum of eastern orthodoxy.

The main sanctuary may be bigger, but it evokes the same feelings I remember from being a kid standing by myself in the old chapel. Similar red carpeting lines the aisles. Recognizable faces stare down from murals on the ceilings. Even empty and quiet, the room back then had seemed alive. Today, it is further animated with movement and sound as Grandma and I slip into a wood pew. The priests and their helpers are revving up around the altar, lighting the candles and stoking the incense. Grandma hands me a pamphlet on the rules and procedures of attending a service, tucked into the back of the pew along with bibles and hymnals and a laminated card of the communion prayers. It spells out the proper way one is to enter the main chapel: first, by “venerating” an icon and, second, by lighting a candle. It explains that venerating means kissing. Out in the foyer, I had watched others pressing their lips against the glass under which sat a painting of a saint. It says here: “It is not proper to kiss an icon in the face.” Thank goodness I didn’t attempt it; that’s exactly where I would have planted a wet one. Instead, I caught up with Grandma who was making a donation in exchange for two thin candles. She handed one to me. I lit it using the flame of another and then nestled it into the sand of the raised box by the door saying a prayer for my grandfather who was a staunch atheist.

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.

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.

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.