A goodbye hug

As Salma spoke, I noticed her finger nails were tipped magenta. What surprised me about her disclosure wasn’t that Muslims could have differences, but that such differences might exist within a unit as intimate as husband and wife or dad and daughter without it threatening the familial bond. If ever there were negotiations, it seems they long ago ceased, and now the family members lived in harmonious dissent. Perhaps this was a lesson for unity on any scale.

“It’s important you know that not every Muslim agrees,” Salma told me. “I don’t cover my head in public, but I don’t believe this makes me less devout.” On this last point, she was clear: she considered herself faithful. She performed her daily prayers, and she was true to the other pillars. “It’s important that we educate ourselves and do what we feel is right for us as individuals.” I thanked her for sharing her perspective, and silently wondered if voices like hers might help make some aspects of Islam more compatible with contemporary tastes.

By the time I was ready to go, Raj and his family had showered me with so many gifts that they also had to give me a shopping bag in which to carry them. I received a beautiful Quran, much nicer than the cheap paperback version I had been using. They gave me a box of sweets to share with my grandmother; they were delicious, like extra-rich and dense donut holes. Before his departure, Abdul handed me a jug. It was the shape of a canister one might use for gasoline, but much smaller and made of clear plastic. “It’s Zamzam water,” he said of the liquid inside. It took a moment for his words to register: I was holding water from Mecca. Aside from the Kaaba, the spring from which this water comes is perhaps the most important site in all of Islamic history. Like the Eid itself, its significance is tied to Abraham’s son, Ishmael. It is said that when Ishmael was an infant and desperate with thirst, the earth gurgled forth at this spot and has offered precious life-sustaining water in abundance ever since. “I brought it back from my Hajj,” Abdul told me. “You may have it.” I couldn’t believe this precious item was mine to keep.

After I thanked everyone profusely and promised to stay in touch, Raj walked me outside. At the car, I set my bag of gifts down. I felt an overwhelming appreciation for the effort Raj had made to get my phone number that first day. I was grateful to his family for including me in their Eid celebrations, and for everything they had taught me. If I was to follow Islamic norms, I would have taken care not to touch Raj. I would have driven away with a wave. But that felt all wrong: too formal and not at all indicative of the fondness I had developed.

“May I give you a hug?” I asked. I was emboldened by Salma’s advice. Each person has to assess guidelines for themselves and make judgments about what is and isn’t applicable. Raj seemed pleased by my question. “Yes,” he answered. He smiled and I went in for an affectionate squeeze that perfectly fit the situation.

Raj’s family

We made our way to an upscale subdivision filled with identical-looking brick homes. Theirs was at the end of a cul-de-sac, the front door dwarfed by the impressive façade. I parked on the street while Raj stood in the driveway waiting for me. He reminded me of my grandpa who was always affectionate with me, though I doubted my grandpa would have been as tender with a stranger as Raj was with me. Raj ushered me through the entrance in the garage that led directly to the kitchen.

Inside, the food was ready and the table was set. They insisted I take the head, facing the big picture window looking out to the yard. Through bits and pieces, I had learned that Raj was a retired engineer who dabbled in writing. He and his wife had lived in Texas for close to 40 years. Now he beamed with pride as his daughter explained that she and her husband, Abdul, were both doctors. To top it off, his granddaughter, Salma, was currently in medical school. I thought about how envious my grandmother would be—she had waged a many-decades long campaign to convince someone in the family to become a doctor but not one of her children or grandchildren had been swayed. Here, Raj and his wife were outnumbered by doctors.

Abdul asked what had brought me to their mosque and Raj said, yes, please tell us. They knew I was learning Islam, so I figured they wanted a longer version. As we ate, I gave it to them. I started at the beginning and explained everything. I had grown up with no religion. I got older and grew curious. Then I moved to a small town and began by going to churches. I worked my way through Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. It had taken several years, but I had finally made it to Islam. At home, I had done what I could to educate myself. Then I came to Dallas to visit my grandma and worship at mosques.

They nodded, but looked confused. I could see them trying to make sense of it. They wanted to know how my experiment would end, where exactly I would land. I didn’t know what else to tell them. I was trying to make sense of it too.

Abdul, especially, seemed baffled. He asked if I knew the pillars of Islam. I said them out loud, counting on my fingers: daily prayers, Ramadan, zakat (giving to charity), monotheism. That was four. What was the last? “Shahada,” Abdul said. Of course. The shahada, the statement of faith. He asked if I knew the Islamic view of Jesus. Yes, I answered, he is greatly respected and considered a prophet, similar to Muhammad.

I could sense the question—Did I intend to become Muslim?—on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he switched his approach. “You should become Muslim as soon as possible,” he said. What purpose did learning serve unless I planned to convert? I wasn’t sure he’d understand that, for me, knowledge was having the opposite effect: the more I learned, the less inclined I was to declare myself any one thing. But this hadn’t prevented me from developing a deep appreciation, love even, for the ideas and people I met along the way. I recalled Fatima saying she was eager for me to become a Muslim because then she and I would be sisters. I smiled at the sweetness of the sentiment. I wanted to say, “I hope we can be sisters no matter what.”

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…

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

 

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.