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Turkey Diary: Let Us Pray 14 August 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, Spirituality, Theology.
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1. Istanbul

The entrance to the mosque is hidden behind a metal door which swings. It is early, still, for maghrib; I imagined, walking downhill, that I would find a space inside, up in a balcony, where I might wait to pray.

The masjid is a simple thing with a short minaret, just this side of shabby. Its facade has been whitewashed in recent years, and yet, still, patches of brick, swathes of cement are visible through its skin. I am reminded, standing outside, of veins on the back of my hand.

In the shade of the Blue Mosque, its adhan is drowned. Still, I think, while I slip off my shoes, maybe small things suit me better. Perhaps here the women, should any come, will line up with me. Perhaps, this time, as one body, we will pray together.

Shoes in hand, I push open the door and am stopped up short by legs. Three women wearing stylish niqabs sit together, knee to knee. They wait in the alcove, on concrete squares. I try the door leading into the prayer hall; a woman, behind me, murmurs. We are locked out.

I settle myself in a free corner to wait. We give salaam softly, the ladies and I, before they return to their conversation. I rest my wrist in my lap and trace my thumb up the lines in the fingers. Subhan Allah, Subhan Allah, Subhan Allah. God is Perfect, God is Perfect, God is Perfect. My hand prickles in the evening. The door through which I have just passed creaks open again, and a child, perhaps eight, finds her way inside.

A woman whose veil is silky dove grey asks the child to shut the door, to come to her side. I watch as the girl picks her way through the assemblage of feet, and then it hits me. I understood what the woman said. They are speaking Urdu. My vocabulary in Urdu might be scant, but it is downright
conversational compared to my Turkish.

I cannot keep from beaming. Two minutes later, we’ve done places and names. They are Rukhsana, Saadia, Aban. They are from Quetta, in Pakistan. Aban is telling me about her children when a click from the inside of the masjid sounds; a deadbolt is slid away. The women stand and flip down their veils. We may come inside to pray.

A limp curtain the color of bone shades the beginning of the stairs. Aban holds it open for me, and up, together we walk. The women’s section is a bird’s nest, perched high up at the ceiling. Benches have been fitted before the window sills; while we wait for the imam, the women prostrate and the children pray. I follow the tradition I know best about how to enter a mosque; when I am done, I settle myself at Rukhsana’s side. My eyes travel over the tops of the walls. Above the point of the mirhab, three names are hung in a line: Allah, Muhammad, Ali.

While I am wondering about the display of these names, the iqama sounds. Its words are different than those I expect; it contains new phrases. The women line up, side by side. I feel, then, the weight of my choice. This mosque, I am more and more certain, does not reflect my tradition. There is plenty of time to pray at my hotel; is it wrong for me to stay?

Saadia’s hand comes from under her veil to pull me closer to her. Our shoulders are touching. Our feet are aligned. The warmth of her body keeps me in place. This is the first place in Turkey where I have felt another Muslim stand so close to me to pray. This mosque is the first place where I have been comfortable with our line.

2. Konya

The hall in which Ruwi’s tomb lies is louder than the sea. A host of dead disciples rest in elevated graves. Each of these is crowned with a peg, wrapped with a turban, engraved. The flow of traffic through the hall is halted in places, in tightening clumps, where masses of people slow. Were the room a brain and we blood cells, the building would have a stroke.

My guides, two young girls from the university, are anxious to have me see everything. I understand their impatience, their pride; this is their city’s legacy. A giant dervish made of fiberglass spins eternally before a restaurant on the edge of town. I let myself be led by the arm to the foot of a mountain of green.

The stone has been carved to resemble a shroud, such that it falls in waves down the length of the sarcophagus. It is protected by an ornate gate, enfolded in walls painted with blue, with gold leaf, where verses are written in red, black and green. There is nothing plain on which to rest my eyes. I am momentarily dizzy.

Women around me are crying, their hands cupped in prayer. They make dua facing the tomb. I try not to hear. What practice is this? My understanding of what is right cannot be reconciled with what I see. There is no God but Allah, I say to myself. Next to me, Lale is watching.

I am at a loss. Shall I tell the girls that praying to saints is shirk? Should I ignore the practice? Shall I give in and raise my hands, as if to make dua?

I find that my heart mostly wants to see a different room. I am trying to keep my distance from the tombs when Tezer presses me. “Do you know Al Fatiha?” she asks. At my nod, she smiles, and looks into my eyes. “Please say it with me.”

Read the Qur’an in public? I open my mouth to decline, but am stopped up short. How many times so far this trip have I felt lonely wishing for just one person to pray with me? Faced with the chance to give Tezer what I’d like for myself, I find I cannot disagree.

3. Tekirdag

In the office I feel five kinds of alone. The nurse has installed a needle in my arm, a long, flexible thing, which terminates in a capped valve. I hold the Qur’an in my right hand, and do my best to read. The print is tiny, tiny; I have to narrow my eyes to make out the letters, to keep them away from the clock.

I listen to the noise of the crowd outside: to the footsteps of the soldiers, to sirens which cry. When last I stood in the hallway, they were marching prisoners through. Arms folded behind their backs, they stared at the ground. I wondered where they were going. Men with tubes of blood protruding from their noses wandered through Cardiology. I watched families with angry eyed children, and elders who shook ceaselessly. Nurses came running with a defibrillator into one of the patient rooms. After a moment, two women left its doorway, wailing.

I try to take myself away, to remember everything which Hafsah has taught to me about tajweed. I watch my mims and my nuns, I pay attention to madd. My favorite surah for months now has been Al-Ala. “But you prefer the life of the world, though the hereafter is better, everlasting,” for a moment, I am back at school, legs curled under on the edge of the rug, watching the Qur’an competition. I hear the shaykh greeting us, and the microphone buzzing.

The door to the office opens, dyeing the walls pale, pale green. Into the room, two women in black stumble, shaking. For a moment they stand, uncertain, holding their cell phones. I scoot over to the edge of the couch, and touch the space next to me.

One of them settles against me, while the other remains standing. They call relatives. For the first time in Turkey, I will myself not to understand. I finish the surah, and look ahead. Next is Al-Ghashiya. The
Overwhelming. I let the Book fall open in my hands, asking God to pick something else for me. When I look at it again, it is open to page 531: the beginning of Al-Rahman.

The couch shakes from the force of my companion’s sobs. I hold her as best I can, one hand grasping the Qur’an, and the other, wrapped around her arm. The women finish their conversations, and the one who is standing leaves. The woman sitting next to me shifts her weight uneasily. Wait, I want to say to her. I swear that I can give you something. I close the Qur’an, and zip shut its cover. I try to hand it to the woman next to me. Please, I beg her with my heart, have my Qur’an. This is all I can do for
you.

She looks at me blankly, and does not take my offering. Still, she does not get up. I rub her arm slowly, up and down, black crepe whispering. I place the Qur’an in her lap, now she will understand. You will be okay, I think to her. I swear that if you read it, you will find some relief from your suffering.

She stands up then and kisses me. “I cannot read it,” she says in Turkish. I am surprised to find that in times of trauma, I can understand. For a moment, she holds my hand. “I don’t know how,” she says, “you read it for me.” She raises her hands to the sky, as if cupping something. “Make dua,” she says, as she rewraps herself to leave. “Please.”

4. Edirne

No one else in the masjid is under the age of seventy. The brothers show me into the room, a big empty place, which has been built for the ladies. They take care in making sure that my shoes are well placed, and they shut the door after me. While the last strains of the adhan die away, I sit, remembering.

The time after the adhan stretches on while I wait for anyone to come and pray with me. I vow to myself that this time, I will not pray alone. If anyone else comes, anyone at all, I will ask her to line up with me. I study the floor around me to count the sets of beads.

The door opens at last and another woman comes in. She is old, like the other faithful, and surprised to find company. I smile, but she does not see. She sits with her hands on her heart. At last, the iqama begins.

Please come to me, I ask the woman, as both of us stand to pray. I try to make eye contact, which she seems bent on ignoring. As the call begins to end, my heart thuds. I cannot do this alone, not this time.

“Come here,” I tell her in Arabic. She turns her head and blinks. She does not understand what I have said, but she has connected with me. “Come stand by me,” I try again. I pat my side, I incline my head. Please, I ask her silently. Please join me. My khushoo is so weak lately. My mind keeps wandering. I want to pray my best. I want you next to me.

Then the injustice of what I ask overwhelms me. Are your legs broken? I ask myself. If praying separately is too hard for you, then go to her. Stand by her. You do not have to be as helpless as you act. You can still do something. The shy, lazy part of me rebels. But I’m standing in the right place to start the line, a voice in my head says to me. She’s all the way over on the left. That’s wrong.

I take two steps toward my sister, and she takes two toward me. The imam begins to pronounce the first takbir, and finally, we are moving. We meet in the middle, and fold down our hands. We are finally touching.

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Comments»

1. johnathon - 14 August 2008

this is really beautiful…

2. johnathon - 15 August 2008

“The masjid is a simple thing with a short minaret, just this side of shabby. Its facade has been whitewashed in recent years, and yet, still, patches of brick, swathes of cement are visible through its skin. I am reminded, standing outside, of veins on the back of my hand”

this is my favorite part. i love how the non-organic objects are connected to the organic. the world is such an amazing place.

3. ABD - 15 August 2008

as-salam alaykum,

anna, your vignettes reminded me of the beautiful, beautiful advice of our prophet muhammad, on him be peace:

“Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil, and wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and moves to and from in the breast even though people again and again have given you their legal opinion (in its favor).”

– On the authority of Wabisa bin Mabad.
Recorded in ibn Hanbal and ad-Darimi.

johnathon, the organic metaphors struck me too (start counting body parts, and we could have a second title for the post). this one makes for my favorite lines in the piece:

The flow of traffic through the hall is halted in places, in tightening clumps, where masses of people slow. Were the room a brain and we blood cells, the building would have a stroke.

4. aftabzz - 16 August 2008

very impressive , delicate picture of world around..:)i would like to read it again

5. Baraka - 16 August 2008

Salaams dear Anna,

Johnathon and ABD have pointed out two of the paragraphs I found most striking in their imagery, but what drew me into the piece was the tension of seeking community, finding oneself connecting in unexpected and possibly uncomfortable ways, and yet continuing to try.

A lovely piece, as always.

Warmly,
Baraka

6. argentyne - 19 August 2008

Masha’allah as always. Wassalam.

7. A Sunni Muslim - 6 September 2008

Women around me are crying, their hands cupped in prayer. They make dua facing the tomb. I try not to hear. What practice is this? My understanding of what is right cannot be reconciled with what I see. There is no God but Allah, I say to myself. Next to me, Lale is watching.

I am at a loss. Shall I tell the girls that praying to saints is shirk? Should I ignore the practice? Shall I give in and raise my hands, as if to make dua?

(I don’t understand?) What is wrong with that?
A Sunni Muslim

and to pray fatiha in public is beautiful
Try it, say Fatiha, raise your hands and pray with those around you.

8. ABD - 7 September 2008

i wonder whether in the scene described the women with cupped hands in prayer are praying to the deceased or praying to Allah for the deceased.

as a matter of experience, i do know that reciting the fatiha for the benefit of the deceased is a common practice.


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