Monday, April 19, 2010

Controversial Topics

Last night in small group, we were talking about a controversial topic. I love talking about things, though, because it helps me to distill and articulate what, exactly, I believe. When Kim shared an article about the Pro-Choice movement, I started writing what I meant to be a fairly brief comment. Instead, it turned into the following post:

I have really mixed feelings on a lot of levels about abortion, but a law preventing state funding in cases of maternal jeopardy, rape and incest?? I am one of those who finds it morally wrong - but not everything morally wrong is illegal, or should be. Because, of course, though their are a lot of similarities in the American justice system to Judeo-Christian beliefs, they are not in fact the same. I have always been pro-life for moral reasons, and because I do also believe that abortion can cause women a lot of harm as well, physically from complications - though I know these are fairly rare and that it's a basic medical procedure - but also potentially psychologically. I'd like to see a lot more support for women facing that choice, from counselors who are not biased one way or another.
I'd also like to see more intelligent sex education - that yes, does include abstinence, because it really is the only 100% effective way of preventing pregnancies and STDs - but not abstinence-only, because people need to be fully educated to make whatever decision they settle upon, and I want to see better access to and insurance coverage of birth control for women. I truly hate when abortion is used as a backup plan for people who were careless with birth control. I know, as I just mentioned, that no form of birth control is 100% effective, but when people have unprotected sex and use abortion to "clean up their mess" I feel that is taking advantage of a serious medical procedure best reserved for emergencies. This particular thought, I know, is shaped by an acquaintance I had in high school, who, at 15, came to me one week and said, "I'm pregnant" and the next week said, "I got rid of it." I was only 16 myself, and I cried a lot of tears for that lost life. Over the years, she went on to have another abortion and an unplanned pregnancy that she carried to term, and kept the baby. I found myself incredibly frustrated by what to me seemed to be a failure to learn from the past and a total abuse of a system taken for granted.
For those considering abortion, I would encourage them to never, ever take the decision lightly. I know that many or most people don't, but I feel the need to stress that. There are options, and yes pregnancy could be very difficult and challenging at the wrong time in your life, but I do wish more people would strongly consider adoption. It's so sad that when there are families who are infertile and longing for a child of their own and wanting and waiting to adopt (or families who already have children who possess that extra grace and love to take in another child), when there are millions of healthy pregnancies being terminated in North America (this discussion opened around American law, but I'm Canadian, so I now broaden the topic slightly.)
All of that said, abortion is legal, and I believe it will stay that way. My moral opposition does not translate to a legal argument, and a person does have a right to control their own body, under the law. And so, as much as I could never do it myself, as much as every lost child grieves my heart, and as much as I believe it to be a morally wrong choice - that is my choice. I believe that freedom of choice involves being able to make fully educated decisions for yourself. I advocate full and unbiased education. Whenever possible, even when difficult, I would urge women to choose life. But ultimately, that is what it is, and what it must be: a choice.
So I find myself in a complicated position, aligning fairly closely with Hilary Clinton's view that "abortion should be safe, legal, and rare." I am right in the middle of two diametrically and sometimes violently opposed viewpoints. I am pro-life. I pray that everyone would choose life, but I recognize that right of choice. I am pro-life, and I am pro-choice. I don't know if that would make me any friends in either camp.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Adventures in Islam, Part VI

In which I finally get to talk to a Muslim woman :)

Faisal had given me the number of a sister who was willing to talk to me, and so one evening I telephoned her, and we arranged to meet Sunday afternoon at her family's store. This was how I found out that she and her husband run one of the halal markets in town. She is a lovely woman, kind and friendly, and welcoming as she wrangles her children while we await their father. Her name is Asifa, her husband is Amir, and they opened the market in February. Before that, they ran a gas station, here in [town], and previously in Revelstoke. They also lived in Windsor, Ontario, and Calgary. Asifa immigrated to Canada from Pakistan at fourteen years of age in 1992 with her father and siblings; her mother died when she was 7 or 8. Amir came to Canada in 1997, his immigration sponsored by Asifa's family, and they married three days after his arrival, their wedding day the first day they met. They speak Urdu in their home, the native language of Pakistan, and encourage it so their children can communicate easily with grandparents. Asifa is happy in her marriage; she says her husband is a good companion. The marriage was arranged between their families, and Asifa said that arranged marriages are largely based upon family reputations. She said that she trusted her family's judgment, as they knew her well, and “God is planning everything”. Even with arranged marriage, she said, the bride and bridegroom have the right to refuse. The couple has a fairly traditional division of household labour, at least from the Western view: she does the inside jobs and he takes care of outside chores such as garbage, lawn mowing and the like. He runs the store, and she is focused on child care. However, they will fill in for one another as needed, and Asifa stressed the nature of the relationship as companions and partners in raising children. For example, Asifa will mind the store on Fridays when Amir goes to prayer, and Amir was in charge of minding the children while Asifa and I spoke; he also served us some delicious samosas to snack on.

Asifa and Amir have four children, all boys and all under the age of 10. Though they do not practice any birth control beyond what Asifa called “natural measures”, she does not plan to have any more. Birth control is not strictly forbidden, she said, but definitely frowned upon, and abortion is only allowed if medically necessary to the mother's health. When I asked her if she felt she'd been well prepared for the intimacies of marriage, especially with her mother dying at a young age, she smile and said she had married older sisters and a very open relationship. This openness made Asifa very easy to talk to, and very informative about details of being female and Muslim. For example, I was surprised to learn that women are not supposed to pray during menstruation. They may go to the mosque – Asifa has, and the other women wondered why she didn't join in prayer, because her whole family was going – but not pray. Also, Islamic law says that a child must be weaned after two years, pregnant or nursing women are exempted from fasting during Ramadan – the days may be “made up” later if they are able – and the details of cleanup after accidents by young children is determined by whether or not they are nursing. Asifa covers her hair when in public, but said her sister follows very strictly, showing only her eyes, and wearing gloves. Makeup is permitted, Asifa said, but only when it will be seen exclusively by other women or her husband. When I asked Asifa about her views on polygamy, she said she would be alright with a second wife, and when I asked about the possibility of jealousy, she said that both wives would live together like sisters. But, she said, though everything must be equal, the husband would always love his first wife most.

I also asked about her knowledge of halal foods, as she and Amir run a specifically halal market. Halal meat, she told me, must be slaughtered in a specific way: the animals may not be shot, but slaughtered with a knife, and the takbir (“Allahu Akbar”) must be said as they are killed. Upon the birth of a child, an animal sacrifice is to be made by the parents of a goat or a lamb, two animals fora boy and one for a girl. Pork is definitely haram, and in fact they may not even say the word “pig”: when we spoke, Asifa spelled it out one letter at a time. If she were to say it, she explained, she would have to wash her tongue three times. Other very specific ablutions must also be performed by the devout Muslim. Before prayer, one must wash the hands to the elbow, the mouth, feet and face. The face may be washed a maximum of three times, and this must all be done with the right hand, right side first, except for the nose which must be cleaned with the left hand. This is called wadhu, and the purified state can last between prayers, unless one comes into contact with the genitals (one's own, or when aiding a young child with the washroom or diapers) or the bodily fluids of a child who is no longer nursing. The mosque in [town] is currently working on building new wadhu facilities for their members to use.

When the female members come together for “female circle”, Asifa said, there are usually 6 or 7 ladies, often with small children. Larger mosques, she noted, will provide childcare. They spend time memorizing scriptures, translating, or praying. They recite the second daily prayer at around 1:15pm at this time of year, then eat. When I asked her about Dr. S___'s theory that women were more comfortable praying at home, she thought perhaps it was more likely due to responsibilities of child care, including nap and school schedules and potty training. The “female circle” though, is a fairly important part of a [town] Muslim woman's social life, if she can make it. Asifa met one friend at the mosque who has children of a similar age, so they meet for the children to play and the mothers to talk, and that friend introduced her to another, and so on. Also, she mentioned that she has come upon new friends by seeing a woman with her head covered shopping in the large supermarket, approaching her and starting a conversation.

Still, for both the men and the women, the mosque seems to play a highly significant social role, and most interactions appear to be with others of the Muslim faith. This may be easier partially because many people are immigrants and relatively new in town, and also it would help to avoid somewhat awkward social situations. For example, I did not learn it was inappropriate for a Muslim man to look a woman in the eye until saying goodbye to Asifa and Amir after conducting my final interview. Finally this explained why none of the men arriving at prayer at the mosque for my first contact would make eye contact!


Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Adventures in Islam, Part V

Speaking to two young men on campus one afternoon.

My next interviewees were two young men, MBA students from [my local] University, Talib and Ibrahim. Both are here temporarily as a function of their studies. Ibrahim is from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the location of Mecca. Talib was born in India, but moved to Dubai, where he was raised, as an infant. I asked him what it meant for him to be a Muslim, here and now. He explained that he saw it as an attitude of accountability to God, that living as a true Muslim meant to be “constantly reminded about your creator”. While he finds support from the community, he stressed that it is individual background and one's own devotion to the faith that mattered most. He asserted that one did not simply “inherit the title” by being raised in a Muslim family, and that being “Muslim” simply meant being submitted to God – and he and Ibrahim agreed that all creatures on earth are and must be submitted to God – but the ideal towards which they strive is to be mo'men, or “faithful”. Like Dr. S___, Talib emphasized the importance of following the Qu'ran, but he had a slightly different metaphor than the physician. Instead of calling it a prescription, he compared it to an owner's manual, such as one for a telephone or a car. The Qu'ran is a manual for life, he and Ibrahim said, and God, as the creator, knows best how to run our lives. Talib elaborated, “If in a petrol car, I put diesel, it will not operate!” Though some rules have now been proven to have scientific basis, such as using a toothbrush – or more traditionally, a miswak, something of a cross between a brush and a toothpick, which both men said they used back home – Talib and Ibrahim said that most people do not look for the reasons behind the rules.

I asked them how being Muslim affected their social lives, particularly at [our university]. Ibrahim said that he found it did, especially when other students are immersed in the drinking and partying lifestyle common to many, as alcohol is forbidden to Muslims. Talib emphasized that he did not feel like he was missing out, and felt he could interact easily and have open conversations about religion with other students. “I couldn't imagine anything better happening to me” he said, “than being a Muslim”. I then asked about restrictions, what sort of things from which the Qu'ran or Hadith directed them away. “Everything is halal, except that which is haram”, or everything is lawful except that which is forbidden. They mentioned alcohol, or anything that could be an intoxicant such as other drugs. Also considered haram were premarital sex and birth control, though they qualified the latter could be acceptable if necessary for the woman's health. Additionally, like Jewish persons, Muslims are forbidden from eating pork or any pork products. Ibrahim mentioned that he'd been meaning to go to the halal market – there are two in town, now – to find some special Jello that didn't use ground pig bone. The observance of halal and how strictly it is followed can depend on the beliefs of the individual and how strictly they feel they must follow the rules as laid out.

I also spoke to Talib and Ibrahim about the role of women in Islam. Talib said, “How Islam treats women is like a jewel”. Ibrahim cited a story in which the Prophet was asked whom he should favour, between his mother and his father. Three times the Prophet was asked, and three times he answered, “Your mother.” The fourth time he was asked, he responded with “your father”, and Ibrahim said that this demonstrated that the mother should be favoured three times more than the father. Mohammed, they said, set an example of treating women well, and even that the first time in history women were allowed to vote was when Mohammed was voted in as a religious leader. “You need to separate between culture and religion”, Ibrahim told me. In some Muslim countries, the federal law may been different or even entirely opposite of Islamic law. Islamic law provides for women, through their dowry, which stays in their name upon their marriage, and though a parent's assets upon their death are divided with two-thirds going to the male heir and only one-third to the female, the law dictates that the male is entirely responsible for the financial care of the female, paying all her expenses.

According to Talib and Ibrahim, a wife has a lot of power. She may seek divorce if she is unhappy for any reason – though the husband does not have to appear before a (almost certainly male) judge in petition, and can simply divorce a woman by saying “I divorce you” three times – and “she can make his life like hell”. An unmarried woman has the right to refuse her suitor, they said, and the qualities a suitor seeks in a wife value her character and her role as a mother-educator for their children and companion over her physical beauty. The main responsibility of the woman is as a mother, and she works outside the home only if she chooses to, and any income is solely hers to retain. A man may not take a second or third or fourth wife – up to four wives for one husband are allowed per Islamic law – without the permission of his first wife, and he must provide equally for all of them, including separate households if they so desire. Still, if this is the literal Islamic law, there have also been damaging interpretations and as mentioned, a country's law may be completely different, enforced in the name of God. The conversation between the two gentlemen and I was filled with questions on my part, and admittedly some bias, but they were gracious in answering my questions with good humour. Still, I thought it would be more informative in this particular arena if I were able to speak to a woman.


Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

Adventures in Islam, Part IV

After my great horror at reading about events in Bosnia that through much of my sheltered life I had no idea had ever happened, the chance to speak to Ibishi meant a lot to me. I probably shouldn't say it, it's not terribly professional...but he was my favourite ;)

Though Ibishi, an Albanian man born in Kosovo, immigrated to Canada more than ten years ago, his English is not his strongest language (he also speaks Albanian, Serbo-Croat, Macedonian, Montenegrin and Bosnian) – though not nearly as weak as my Albanian – we had some trouble communicating, but Faisal endeavoured to help us the best he could. (Please note that because of that language barrier, this record may contain more paraphrase, or when I do use a direct quote, it may not follow conventional rules of English grammar.) I asked Ibishi, if it was not too rude or impertinent, could he please tell me how old he was. He laughed and said that certainly he had nothing to be ashamed of in his age, and told me that he was sixty-four. When I reflected on the fact that my own father is 61, it seemed Ibishi looked much older. His face is heavily lined, and his smile, though infectious, is far from toothpaste-commercial perfection. He has not had an easy life. When I thanked him for speaking to me about his time in Bosnia, and said that I knew it must be difficult, he shrugged and lightheartedly said, “Is life.” He spoke of Slobodan Milošević, that the things he was inciting and doing were “slowly slowly going worse and worse and worse”. There were soldiers in his province, he said, because of the gold and silver mines, and the land and climate were ideal for agriculture; it was a rich province. He told me how a Serbian soldier was pressuring him to leave, that he would “maybe be killed”. He had a job, he said – as though to prove his worth – “Lost job, papers...burn!” – the emotion is evident in his eyes. The documents, his accreditation for the 28 years he had spent working construction, working with rebar, were destroyed. “He stole everything”, speaking of the solider, “burned me house!” He paused, looked away. “Bosnia was very hard, very difficult”.

He spoke of the previous relationships with Serb and Croat neighbours, how there had been peace, that people would intermarry. He shook his head at the senselessness of it all. “He take a gun”, Ibishi said, motioning and making rat-a-tat machine gun sounds, “and kill everybody for no reason!” He told me how his second son, only in high school at the time, was stopped by the Serbian military, and along with the eleven friends with whom he was walking, was lined up against and wall and threatened, that the soldier had held the point of a bayonet to his throat. His son survived, but Ibishi explained that even now, he has “bad dream[s]...just start[s] to cry”. He likely suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is unsurprising given such experiences and memories.

When Ibishi and his family were leaving his home province, trying to escape, they were once again accosted by the military. What little they had managed to escape with was stolen or destroyed. “He had power”, Ibishi said, “I had empty hands”. In spite of losing so much, his job, his home, everything he had worked for, being forced from his birthplace and herded through refugee camps, Ibishi remains remarkably positive. He keeps his perspective on those things which matter most. “Somebody losed all family”, he said, and Ibishi, his wife and his five children all escaped with their lives. They immigrated among the 5000 refugees the government of Canada would allow, and landed in Nova Scotia. When asked by the immigration officials where he wanted to settle, he said, “I want to go to some warm place”. He was sponsored by a family in [town], and now lives here with his wife, one son and his daughter. The other three boys now live in Calgary. Ibishi expresses happiness that they all have jobs; employment – and likely the feeling of contribution and feeling of usefulness it can impart – seems very important to him. Even with struggles and trials that could easily destroy the human spirit, Ibishi remains thankful. I wonder if his belief in God and his sovereignty has helped to bring him the peace he now seems to have.


Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

Adventures in Islam, Part III

This one is a little bit shorter...

My second interview was with my initial contact, Faisal. He too is a married father of young children: a daughter who is six, and two sons, five and three. He appears to be an unassuming man, with a kind face and a gentle manner. He immigrated from Pakistan several years ago, and after three years in Toronto, moved to [town], where he now works as a traffic engineer. He said that he found the move a challenge to his faith, that it became stronger when he was more independent from the extensive support network he had in Toronto. He spoke of what it was like to “do Ramadan” alone, and what it was like to own his belief, “understand the importance and significance of [his] faith”.

Faisal explained to me some of the details of Ramadan, and while I knew of the fasting, I was surprised to learn that Muslims are also instructed to refrain from drinking, even water, between dawn and dusk during the holy month. The rules of when one is to eat during Ramadan are also very specific: no more than ten minutes after sunset. Faisal pointed out that expectant mothers, children and the elderly or infirm are not required to fast during daylight hours, but may and do join in the communal feasts that occur after the sun goes down. The entire community is more involved during Ramadan, and instead of only having the monthly potluck, the mosque arranges feasts twice weekly, on Saturday and Sunday nights. The month of Ramadan is very social. Faisal noted that he “feel[s] blessed having other Muslims” with him, whether they are also fasting or not. It seemed that Faisal had benefited both from times of social famine and feast in his spiritual life. He is quite apparently fond of his fellow believers, and told me a little about from where some of them had come, one in particular stood out, because of recent readings about genocide in Bosnia, and so I asked if he would introduce me to his brother from Kosovo.


Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

Adventures in Islam, Part II

In which I speak with Dr. Ezra (the English equivalent of his given name.)

Dr. Uzair S___ is a medical doctor, a general practitioner from South Africa. He appeared to be in his 30s, dark-skinned with short hair and glasses. He was, by contemporary Canadian standards, well dressed and pleasant-looking. He is married with two children, he told me, a girl and a boy, 3 and 1 years old respectively. The 3-year-old is already learning about the Qu'ran; Uzair said that she attends the mosque's weekly madresa, the Islamic equivalent of Sunday School.

Uzair also spoke briefly of the social life surrounding the mosque, saying that there are monthly potlucks that many families attend, where the emphasis is not as explicitly spiritual, and the community gathers to speak of life in general, visiting and strengthening social bonds. When asked about his wife's relationships, he also said that she spends time with other ladies from the mosque, and sometimes attends playgrounds with other mothers of young children.

Uzair told me some of the basics of their community and their beliefs. He explained that the juma service, or “gathering” was considered of highest importance, obligatory for the men to attend, and between twenty and fifty people attend each week, some coming from out of town. More women and families do attend the Friday services, though it is not required of them, but Uzair hypothesized that many do not come because they feel more comfortable praying in their own homes. He called the prayer process “pour[ing] your heart out to God”, and explained that there were special ablutions to be performed before prayers, which was explained to me in a more in-depth manner by one of my later interviewees.

Uzair spoke to me of the Qu'ran, and that the Muslims see it as God's word as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in approximately 700AD. The Prophet is said to have memorized the words that were later transcribed. “Not a single word has changed” he told me, it is “pure”, the “exact word of God” and to change even the smallest thing, even a comma, is considered a very grave sin. The Qu'ran was written in Arabic, and children learn to read it from their school days, either in an Islamic school where all subjects are taught through an Islamic worldview, or by supplemental education from their parents or the mosque.

In addition to the Qu'ran, Muslims read the Hadith, which is composed of stories and principles based on the life of the prophet. It was written retrospectively by scholars who gathered data and interviewed the Prophet Mohammed's peers, and it is sometimes very personal, including the way that he spoke to his wives and children. Uzair, as a doctor, explained that the Prophet's life is a prescription for the Muslim believer, a template upon which to base their lives. Islam, he told me, is less of a belief system and more a way of life. Islam, he said, literally means “submission”, and is essentially focused around submission to the will of God as demonstrated by the Prophet. Islam started in Saudi Arabia, and spread, Uzair said, because of people noticing that the believers were honorable in their communities. Islam dictates how believers interact with the world around them; they are to be at harmony with the world and people of different beliefs. While Muslims do believe in heaven, hell and punishment for sins to be meted out on Judgement Day, they also believe that deeds dictate eternal outcome, and that they are to “let God judge”. Islam counts all men equal, he says, and the white loincloth worn during pilgrimages to Mecca reflects that – that all men approach God naked and poor.

As to their relations towards those who do not believe as they do, the Muslims call Jews and Christians “People of the Book”, believing that all three religions believe in the same God, but interpret that in different ways. Muslims believe in much of the Old Testament, and several of the prophets are respected across religions, and they believe that Jesus was a great prophet, but not the Son of God. Many differences in Islam also come up between those of the Sunni and those of the Shi'a belief systems. Uzair explained that while the Muslim community in [town], being Sunni, believes that Mohammed is the true prophet of God, and the final prophet, the Shi'a believe a disciple of Mohammed's holds that distinction, but the core values of Islam remain the same.

Uzair emphasized that Islam is at its heart is a very peaceful religion. When I asked him what he thought about the terrorist stereotype and some of the Western misunderstandings regarding Islam, he expressed disappointment and noted that “God has been used as a weapon”. Certainly this has not only been done by those calling themselves Muslims, but other religions as well: the Catholic Croats in Bosnia, the medieval Christians in the crusades, and Uzair brought up the example of the Dutch Reformed Church and apartheid in his home country of South Africa. He emphasized that such things are a very poor reflection of true Islamic belief, and nothing the Prophet or God would ever have condoned. I thanked him for his time and knowledge, he left, and then I began my next interview.


Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

Adventures in Islam, Part I

For my Anthropology class, I looked into the practice of Islam in my community. I found it very interesting to understand more about another religion, especially one with whom my faith shares such a complex and emotionally charged past. I thought that I would share this here for any of you who are interested in reading it, and as it is part of a rather significant research paper, I'll cull the more interesting parts, and share them in shorter (though likely still fairly long) segments here. Here is part one: my visit to the mosque.

One of the most fascinating facets of the community of Islamic believers in [my city] is its ethnic diversity. In the scope of my interviews, I interviewed Muslims from South Africa, Pakistan, Kosovo, a young man born in India who was raised in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and one from Saudi Arabia, and I was told that the mosque was also spiritual center to individuals from Malaysia, Egypt and Libya. The Muslim community in [my city], as I saw it, appears to be made up entirely of immigrants from all over the world, each with their own unique story and perspective on life and Islam.

When I first inquired if anyone from the Islamic community was available to speak with me, via the electronic mail address on the [redacted] mosque website, I was invited to attend one of their evening prayer services. I was at first startled at the late hour I was told to arrive, nine o'clock in the evening. I later learned that the hour was due to the prescribed times for prayer, based on the Islamic lunar calendar and the rising and setting of the sun. When I arrived at the house that is currently serving as the mosque, no one immediately answered my knock. I stood on the verandah worrying if perhaps I had gone to the wrong house. Eventually a few other cars pulled up, but none of the young men who approached spoke to me, though one wished me Salaam, and none invited me in, nor would they meet my eyes. At the time, I did not know the reason for this. After a few minutes, one of the men let Faisal, the man who had responded to my e-mail inquiry and invited me to the service, know that I was there. I was welcomed in and instructed where I could and could not wear my shoes; I had already asked in my e-mail if I should wear a head covering, and was told that yes, that would be appreciated although not strictly necessary. I was shown the women's area of the mosque, but as there were no other women present, I was invited to observe the prayer service from the back of the men's prayer room in the basement. An 8-year-old boy held the heavy fire door for me as I entered, and I was given a plastic deck chair to sit on.

The men gathered near the front of the room, sitting or kneeling along diagonal lines delineated by alternating colours of carpet. I later learned that this was arranged to point towards Mecca, as Muslims traditionally do when they pray. In the front corner of the prayer hall, there was a small arched alcove, which contained a rug on the left and what appeared to be an altar of some sort on the right. After a few moments, from the back of the room Faisal began the call to prayer, opening with the only words I understood for much of the evening: “Allahu Akbar”. I observed the men, noting that most were young, under 40, other than one older gentleman and the aforementioned young boy. I smiled as I watched the boy squirm and struggle a little to focus his attention, as would any child in such a solemn adult context. As the prayers were said, the men rotated between sitting, kneeling and standing in the traditional prayer positions. Faisal and another man, whom I was informed is a [local university] professor who serves as imam, or leader of the mosque, when he is available alternated in leading prayers. Some of the men wore head coverings, some did not, but all had removed their footwear – other than the older man who wore some sort of white slippers or booties that were obviously not his street shoes. Their pant legs were rolled up a few inches so that their hems did not touch the ground. In the midst of a pause in the prayer, someone's cel phone rang. Once more, I smile to myself, because this is a common occurrence in my Christian church as well: everyone aims to be respectful and turn off their cel phones during a time where Allah or God is meant to be the primary focus, but in the modern age of constant digital accessibility, sometimes the “mute” button is forgotten. Many of the men, slightly nervously, checked the screens of their own phones to ensure that they had remembered to turn their phones to silent mode.

Continuing their prayers, the imam moved to the rug in the alcove and all the men to the front “row” of the diagonal carpet lines. Once more, they prayed, this time in a responsive format where the imam would say a line or two and the men would answer. They stood, kneeled, bent at the waist, all in accordance with the prayers they were saying at the time. Then they sat, and a young man in his 20s stood and removed a volume from the bookshelf on the front wall of the room. He opened it and read the same passage several times, in both English and Arabic. The men then returned to their original positions throughout the room, and after a few minutes gathered again at the front, this time sitting in a circle for some visiting time, a casual “male circle” – a slightly more formal version of which the mosque runs on Saturday nights after the last prayer. The “female circle” occurs on Mondays. I was told that more women attend the Friday services with their families. When the women are present, they pray in their own room, upstairs, and the prayers are relayed to them by a speaker system from downstairs. As several of the men continued to visit at the front of the room, I began my first interview.

Stay tuned for part two :) I interviewed a young father, a doctor from South Africa.