I’m sitting on my couch watching Netflix and simultaneously looking at the clock. Only an hour and a half until the meeting.
I coordinated my schedule a week ago with my everyone so that I could make this meeting, yet I sit here not hearing a word from either of them about where the vehicles are that belong to this family. They knew I had something important scheduled. I should have known they would both forget that I needed to be somewhere by 8pm tonight.
Sighing, I read over the past four email exchanges between me and this man. He’s expecting me and I wonder briefly what I’m going to do. My heart cries out that I just can’t re-schedule. That I need this meeting to happen yet my mind faces reality that I may very well have to let it go for another day. As I begin to compose my regretful e-mail to him, my text alert chirps.
“Hey I’m on my way home. I didn’t forget.”
It’s my son. I should have had more faith in him I think as I start to close my phone. Instead I message my friend Jill in California.
“I’m so nervous. Maybe I shouldn’t go. What do you think?”
She replies back without hesitation.
“Goooooo! You’ve been waiting for this! Don’t be nervous!”
I smile at her words because she’s always cheered me on no matter what I’ve faced in spite of my anxiety and really my anxiety is not about meeting the man. It’s just trying to sabotage another trip out of the house.
I shut off the TV and go to dress. I have no idea what would be appropriate. I certainly don’t want to be disrespectful but a friend told me not to worry and just be conservative. So I remember that as I pull on my best jeans, nicest top and my black cardigan. Tying my hair back at my neck, I smile into the mirror and brush my teeth quickly. Somehow the time has passed fast and I find myself rushing to grab a water bottle and my purse.
My son opens the door to the garage at the same time I do and we collide. Scaring each other for a fraction of a moment and that’s all it takes for my nerves to be on edge again
“Good luck,” he mumbles to me as I pass by. Jacob’s the only one in this house who knows where I’m going tonight. I sit in the truck and I think about that. How did I manage to raise such an open minded and kind son?
For once I don’t turn on the radio as I navigate the darkening streets. I’ve driven past the building I’m headed to before and I’ve looked at it from across the street while sitting in my truck. This time I will go in.
I’m early and there is only one vehicle in the parking lot. My hands are sweaty and my heart’s racing but I will myself to be calm and pray again. I’m always praying it seems. And prayer is appropriate seeing as I am about to enter the Islamic Center of the South Plains for the first time.
The only Mosque in town.
I walk around the grounds of the building and the whole atmosphere feels delicate. I don’t know why. It’s just a building and I laugh at myself. I sit on a bench and pull up my messenger. I text the one person, other than myself, who has ever been around a Muslim before. She lives in New York.
“I’m here and I’m early and my anxiety is so high!”
She gives me reassuring words, telling me how excited she is for me. It’s exactly what I needed.
I notice an empty coke bottle next to a trash can and I get up to throw it away. It’s something that anybody would do I think. An act of consideration and suddenly I’m thinking about the time that this building was vandalized. I can’t remember exactly why it happened but it was after something had occurred in the Middle East. The news reporter here interviewing the Imam about the incident had said it was a hate crime. I try to recall his face from that news report but I can’t and my anxiety ebbs and flows.
I’m praying again.
Headlights appear in the parking lot and two cars pull up. This is it and as I take a deep breath he is walking towards me and I’m taken aback that he’s wearing running pants and a Nike t-shirt with tennis shoes. What had I expected? I have no idea what I’m going to say but why? Why am I so unsure of myself?
He is suddenly shaking my hand and we make our introductions and the next words out of my mouth come just as we reach the door to the center.
“I need to let you know up front that I have severe anxiety in new situations so if I seem out of breath, nervous or anything like that, please do not take it personal.”
I say it with a rush of air as if I’ve just recited a long piece of poetry without taking a breath. As he punches the numbers on the lock pad to the center, he smiles at me and tells me he prays that Allah will help me with that and I hear Arabic words in person for the first time in a long time.
“Inshallah”, the word oozes like honey across my brain.
Then it happens. My eyes begin to water and I turn my head to the side. I’ve caught a glimpse of a man inside and the familiar call to prayer is what I hear next. I’m hearing it for the first time instead of through my headphones on YouTube or through a weak phone call from Egypt. Everything I’ve thought of and have been reading about is right here in front of me and this is so freaking amazing that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to describe it.
It’s as if he knows I’m having a special moment because he waits until the call is finished before opening the door. I’m overwhelmed with emotion. This is one of those feelings I’ll never be able to recount to anyone I say to myself and so I smile at him and nod and say “yes”. I’m not even sure what I’m agreeing with.
“I haven’t brought a scarf to cover my head,” I whisper to him as we enter the center.
“It’s OK, but we do remove our shoes. You can put them here,” he says and points to a cabinet near the inside door. I can hear myself answering him in the affirmative as I remove my shoes and place them neatly beside his. Is that ok? Should I put them on the second shelf? Why am I acting so weird? Oh God please don’t let him notice.
“This is the Mosque. This is where we pray,” he says gesturing around the small room. The man who had been calling the prayer comes to us and shakes my hand and I know I will never remember his name. We are the only ones here and I think back again to that awful news report and wonder how someone could vandalize such a beautiful place. Next he’s showing me where the women pray separately and why that is necessary. He’s saying some words in Arabic to me to describe things and I tell him that I have been studying Arabic for the past three months. He seems surprised but happy and my anxiety melts away even more.
He is kind and I find this realization surprising. What did I expect him to be? Mean? Judgmental? No, neither of those. Maybe annoyed. Annoyed that a Christian woman would want to take up his time to have him explain Islam. Yes, that’s it.
We sit down in a classroom area and the man who I met earlier sits at another table. The Imam explains that this man is taking classes at the local University and that leads us into easy conversation about my son and how he has just started college. Now I’m getting frustrated with myself for expecting anything different! I don’t know what I expected this moment to be like but it certainly hadn’t been bad presumptions yet I find myself surprised by how “normal” it is.
He’s speaking again about the center and what they do here and I feel myself being drawn into the conversation once again. I’m not speaking much. I’m mostly nodding and smiling and I want to say something, anything, but I’m stuck. For once I’m unable to converse. I wonder to myself why he hasn’t asked me yet why I’m interested in Islam like everyone else has. Actually, I’m grateful he hasn’t asked because I’m not sure I could explain it to him at this particular moment.
A few men enter the Mosque and they all greet each other and smile towards us and go about their business. Again, I wonder what I had expected but I let the thoughts go as quickly as they come. The Imam is standing up and explaining to me that he must lead the Maghrib prayer and excuses himself.
“It’s no problem,” I tell him as he goes into a closet and dons a robe. I’m not even sure what to call it. I’m sure it has a name.
“You’re welcome to bring your chair to the doorway and watch as we pray,” he says smiling. “There are more people here on Friday and there will be more later for Isha.”
He leaves me to myself and I’m torn between watching and staying seated where I am. I feel like I might be invading their privacy if I watch them pray but I’m curious. I exhale slowly and only then do I realize I’ve been breathing so shallow. I remind myself that I will regret it if I do not observe the men praying and so I pull my chair to the doorway but as far out of sight as I can. I feel like a perverted voyeur. This is natural though, I remind myself. I’ve sat in church many times and prayed with others and there was nothing voyeuristic about that.
Suddenly his voice calls out and he is chanting in Arabic and I recognize a few words. I’m smart enough to know he is reciting from the Quran but I have no idea what he’s saying. I sit silently and feel my mouth opening in amazement as they begin to bow and prostrate and the whole scene of these men praying together, even this small group, causes tears to form in my eyes again. Suddenly, as if I am not in control of my body, I’m across the small classroom, grabbing tissues from a box and dabbing at my eyes. I tell myself to get a grip.
I sit back down and as quickly as it has started it’s over and I almost fall out of my chair trying to get back to the table. My cheeks burn hot in embarrassment. I’m not sure if anyone saw me.
I want to thank him for allowing me to watch when he sits down across from me. I want to thank him for the whole night so far but I stop myself. Instead he begins to tell me the five pillars of Islam and over the next hour and a half we are discussing similar stories. Stories that are in the Quran, that I have heard in the Bible. We laugh and share anecdotes from each of our religions. I tell him stories of things I’ve experienced in different churches and how I was raised and he tells me stories from the Quran that coincide with my own. He tells me about his family as well.
And that’s when it hits me. We are very similar. He and I are both imperfect human beings and we both serve God and love Him. We both seek peace and happiness for our families and friends. We live in the same community yet have never met and I briefly wonder at the amazement that we have been able to come together this night and share conversation.
It’s time for Isha now and he excuses himself. This time there is no hesitation as I draw my chair over to watch. I gasp to myself because now there are at least twenty men and two women here to pray. I know I will never be able to explain the sight to my friends when this night is over. They will ask me what it was like but I won’t be able to tell them. The prayers begin and I listen for a few minutes and find myself rising to explore the classroom more. There are books upon books on shelves and while I don’t know the books, I recognize letters in Arabic on the spines and I smile. I want to touch them but I feel as if they aren’t mine to touch so I hold myself back.
I hear the words flowing from the other room; I can actually see them in my mind without looking and this comforts me. I am feeling more at home now. I imagine myself sitting in this room one-day learning about the Holy Quran and talking with others. Maybe my Arabic will be better when that day comes. Not that it matters but it would be nice I think to myself. A little boy comes running into the room and stands next to me. He must only be four-years-old and I look down at him and smile. He smiles back. No words, just two people looking at each other and then he is off. Once again tears come to my eyes and I push them back. Nope. I will never be able to describe this to anyone. It will be impossible.
I hear the Imam talking now, in Arabic, to the men and women and I know they are no longer praying and I peek into the other room and see them sitting casually around. Some have their backs to the walls with their knees drawn up, listening intently. Others are standing against the wall with their eyes closed. I wonder what they are thinking. Slowly they begin to leave and the little boy runs back to the room I am in and I assume it is his mother, in her hijab, who comes to gather him and we exchange hello’s and then she is gone.
I sit back down and the Imam is back sitting across from me.
Outside I can hear thunder rumble distant and low.
Somehow it has come up that today is my birthday and he wishes me many blessings and a prosperous new year ahead and then calls to a man in Arabic from the other room. The man enters to where we are and hands a green bound book to the Imam and leaves.
“I want to give you a gift. It is the Quran translated into English.” He opens the book and begins to show me where the words are in Arabic and then in English and how there is a translation of the meaning of the teachings on the bottom of each page. He guides me through how to use the index to cross reference what I am reading with other parts of the Quran. I know I should be listening more intently but I can’t help myself any longer.
“Thank you. Shukran. Thank you so much for this,” I say with tears of happiness falling down my face. I feel my shoulders sag a bit at the release of emotion and for a split second I expect him to laugh at me for being so emotional but he doesn’t.
“You are very welcome. It is our gift to you. You read it and when you have questions or you want to discuss anything, I am only an e-mail away. I will be glad to sit with you again and talk about whatever you would like. You are always welcome here. We would love to have you any time to pray with us. Please don’t hesitate if you need anything.”
I am crying and sniffling and apologizing profusely at the same time.
We hear the thunder louder and both agree that it might be time to head home. I look at the time on my phone and realize I’ve been here for almost three and a half hours. It seems as if I’ve just walked through the doors.
Picking up the copy of the Quran I know that I will have to hide it when I get home. There is much hate in my home for Arabs and Muslims. It will be trouble for me if my sons father finds out that I have been to the Mosque or that I have brought a copy of the Quran home. I hold it tightly to my body as if to protect it from any harm. I know that from here on out I will treat it respectfully and do anything I can to protect the words inside from any harm or wrong doing. How I don’t know but I think to myself that I will surely know if the time comes.
Our goodbyes are quick and I walk swiftly to the front doors and slip my shoes on. Taking a moment to look around one more time at everything, I pray again. This time my prayers are not for relief of anxiety, yet they are prayers of thankfulness to God for this night. And tucking the Quran into my sweater, clutching it tightly to my chest, I walk out into the cold rain that has begun falling. I do not worry about getting wet as I stop for a second to look up at the sky. Inside my head I am thanking my God for every good and bad thing in my life. I am thanking Him for another day of life.
Arriving home, I discreetly carry the copy of the Quran through the garage and once again I stumble across my son as he is leaving.
“How did it go,” he asks me.
“Great. Thanks,” I answer him as I hurry past him toward my room.
My son. He understands and we often pass each other like ships in the night. Yet these small exchanges this evening between us have been bright like beacons from a lighthouse. Each of us knowing where I was going but neither of us knowing how it would turn out. We are allies though and I thank God for my son at that moment.
Later, standing in the garage after the house is silent, I watch the storm rage on and walk into the driveway and let the rain fall hard on my head. I need to feel something concrete right this moment. I need to know that what I experienced tonight was real and not just a dream that I will wake from in the morning. I twirl in the driveway as the lightning strikes all around me and the thunder shakes my bones. I’m soaking wet but right now I can’t think of any other way I’d rather end this day.
And that’s how it happened. My friends did ask me how it went and for the first week I couldn’t explain it at all. I fear at this moment while typing my story, that I may have failed to describe it and that’s OK. When asked what we spoke about for three hours, all I can say is, “We talked about Islam.”
The next question is always, “What did you learn about Islam?” I ponder that question when it’s asked and I think of all the things I’ve heard that Islam is. What the media shows us. What my Muslim friends tell me in regards to extremists.
I have a friend who is a traditional Muslim, one that is devout and one who questions the religion but still fears Allah and believes. Along with my discussions with each of them and now my own experience…
My answer is this:
I learned so much that night. Much of what I learned was on a personal level. I am just beginning this journey but I can tell you without a doubt right now what Islam means to me.
Islam is love for one God. Kindness. Mercifulness. It’s two people from different cultures and backgrounds coming together to learn from each other. It’s a little boy who doesn’t care who you are and still smiles at you before running off to play. It’s another woman dressed differently than you who says hello with kindness in her eyes. It’s seeing yourself amongst people who are different than you yet so much alike it makes your heart ache. Islam is believing in yourself even when you feel like you can’t. It’s the rain and the thunder, the sun and the moon. It’s all things created equal by one superior being.
Islam, to me, is love.