Blessed Be Thy Feet, Part 3, Section B–2: My Ironic Flight

If you have not read “Blessed Be Thy Feet, Part 3, Section B” please do so now:

Head scarf I wore, English version of the Qur’an, and prayer beads

As many of you know who read this blog on a regular basis, during the course of my research on feet in religion, I was invited to attend Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Charlotte.  I cashed in that invitation on Friday.  I thought I had been invited to the evening prayer, but Friday morning at 7:20 on the dot, I was informed that it was noon prayers that I was to come to.  So, being a good journalist, I arrived early to look around a bit.  Because I arrived early, my escort was not ready, and I entered the building through the front door when I should have gone in the side entrance.  That was the first faux pas of my little adventure.  I was also informed at 7:20 to wear loose pants and to bring a scarf.  Thankfully my intuition told me to wear long sleeves, but I should have hunted up a tunic and the fanciest, biggest scarf I could find.  Once the ladies started to arrive, I felt very under-dressed, both in terms of coverage and glitz.

The center looks like any other place of worship built with in the last twenty years, except that it has a small minaret attached instead of a steeple, and it is enclosed by a privacy fence with barbed wire on top and a security gate.  Cameras constantly watch you, inside the building and out, and shoplifting mirrors are mounted in the ceiling corners of the hall ways.  I’m not sure if that’s for security or to insure separation of the sexes.

Since I had arrived early, Hadji Muhammad, the secretary (maybe?) who had invited me, instructed me to sit on a chair in the hallway in a segregated part of the building.  He handed me a bottle of water and said, “Now you put on your scarf” and disappeared back to his office.  The scarf that I put on turned out to be really plain compared to what the other ladies wore, but I had chosen it because sometimes I wear it as lingerie and it gave me a thrill to wear such a sexually charged item in a such a sexually austere place.  When the ladies started to arrive, I realized that I should have pinned my hair up.  NOBODY in my section of the center had any hair showing.

While I was waiting and waiting and waiting, I pieced together that not only should I have come in the side door that lead directly to the place where I was now but that I was in the woman’s section of the building.  Both the front door and the side door had tall racks for folks to put their shoes on.  In my section, there was a door that lead to a kitchen, a bathroom, a prayer room door, and a door that said “Store”.  Women with babies were instructed by different signs in Arabic and English to use the prayer space in the store.  The store, as it turns out, is a little room with no prayer space that sells female Islamic prayer clothes–but no burquas.
I decided to go into the bathroom, and snapped this photo:

This is where the women wash their feet before entering the prayer room.

Finally a woman walked in, the first one that I had seen since I had arrived and introduced herself as Fifi.  I thought she was to be the escort that Hadji  Muhammad promised me at 7:20 AM, but it turned out that she wasn’t.  She told me to take off my shoes and to come into the prayer room.
“Why do we take off our shoes?” I asked.
“Because we worship on the carpet.” Fifi replied.
“Do I need to wash up first?”  I asked.
“That’s for only if you pray,” she responded.
“But, I’d like to pray, if that’s OK.”
“No. No, today you sit and watch and learn.”

I was ushered into the prayer room and instructed to sit in one of the chairs that lined the wall.  Another lady sat next to me, very close.  Then an older lady came in and sat down up close to me on the other side.  Islam, I learned, is a touchy-feeley religion.  I introduced myself to both women, and they smiled.  They talked some to each other over me in Arabic.  Everybody spoke Arabic but me.  Then they started to read their Qur’ans that were in fancy Arabic calligraphy with flowers and vines bordering the pages.  They, and all the other ladies, would mumble the scriptures just under their breaths.  Nobody explained it, but I gathered it was important that the scripture be said and not read in your head.

The ladies’ prayer room is a large plain carpeted room with chairs along the walls, a book shelf full of Qur’ans  and other religious texts, and lines taped to the floor.  These were prayer lines.  When you prayed, you had to stand on the line or you were doing it wrong, just like in gym class.  In the corner diagonal from the door is a flat screen TV mounted to the wall and a line of chairs in front of it.  The TV shows closed circuit coverage of the “pulpit” and the back of the heads of the men in the next room over.  The chairs are for the old ladies who no longer can sit on the floor.

When the women would come into the room, they would make the rounds shaking hands and saying “As-Salāmu `Alaykumor “Peace unto you.”  The younger women had painted finger nails, but the old ladies had hennaed finger and toe nails. One of the ladies who was reading her Qur’an noticed that I seem to be left out of things, so she thrust into my hands Woman in Islam the Myth and the Reality by Dr. Sherif Al-Sheha.  I looked through the book looking for pictures, like maybe of a dreamy Omar Sharif type guy, but instead I came upon two passages that informed me that if my husband invites me to bed for his pleasure and I deny him, that all the angels in Heaven will curse my name until the next morning, and another passage that instructed me that I was not to teach my daughters how to dance for the purposes of corruption.

Betty Page dancing for corruption

As the prayer room started to fill up and ladies and small children were silently praying and reading, Hadji Muhammad made another appearance.  There was lots of talk in Arabic and pointing and gesturing.
“You come now,” he told me, and I was pawned off on a lady whom he told me was in charge of all the women’s activities at the Center.  After arguing with Hadji for several minutes about some misinformation spread on Facebook about youth programs, she ushered me into the store and told me to sit down.  No item, according to the price list on the wall, was more than $20, which was hard to believe considering how heavily embroidered and spangled most of the clothes were.  I suspect that list was not comprehensive.  The head  lady was very nice but soon became busy playing shopkeeper.  Hadji popped up again and handed me an English Qur’an with a promise to reappear with the “Message” written out for me in English.  Everybody  really wanted me to stay for the “Message” which the “Sheikh” would give soon.  Instead, Hadji came back with Ahlam and never reappeared.  Ahlam was the escort Hadji had promised.

Ahlam is an older middle-aged real estate broker who likes to wear heels.  She came to prayers with her daughter (who had made her own prayer clothes) and her grandson.  While her daughter went on into the prayer room, we put our shoes back on and went out side, where a few of the women were frying food to sell after prayers.

“Islam is a religion of practicality,” Ahlam explained.  ”Our scriptures tell us how best to do everything in our lives.”  According to Ahlam, Muslims wash before prayers not so much to wash away physical dirt, but to wash away metaphysical dirt and negative energies.  The act is a way to let go of everyday worries,  and it helps the devout to get in the right mindset to communicate with Allah.  It sounded a lot like sympathetic magic and meditation to me.  She then explained that although women were somewhat segregated in Islam, a lot of segregation was a bid for equality.  The sexes, according to her, are segregated during prayers so that people are not distracted by the opposite sex bending and kneeling.  Considering the submissive vulnerability that some of their prayer gestures and positions suggest, I could see her point.

Everybody was called to prayers by a singsong voice blaring from the minaret.  As we walked back inside and removed our shoes, I asked if I needed to wash up.  ”No” was again the response.  Ahlam and I sat on the floor on one of the taped lines beside her daughter and grandson and the main event began.  The older lady who sat beside me earlier once again sat beside me, and Fifi sat on the line in front of me.

The service started with a solo prayer.  The prayers that were said aloud were all recited in a singsong tone, like a person lining out a hymn.  They were also all in Arabic.  Then the Sheikh delivered the “Message”–in Arabic.  From watching him on the closed circuit television, he looked a lot like a minister–reading some scripture and then preaching on it.  Then, with no warning, the Sheikh started speaking English.  I’m not sure if he was repeating what he had said in Arabic in English or if this was just the English half of the “Message”.  In English he preached about how good Muslims need to show the world how nice they are, how they need to be nice, generous, and friendly to new converts, and how they need to extend hospitality to visitors.  Yeah, I know.  I’m not sure if the content of the “Message” was coincidental or if it was said specifically because I was there.

The chanter sang something in Arabic, and Ahlam whispered, “We’re going to pray now.  You can go and sit over there.”
“I’d like to pray too, if it’s OK.” I whispered back.  She smiled and nodded.
The chanter then lead a call and response prayer, which I didn’t know the response to.  I’m not sure what all we prayed for, but I’m pretty sure Libya was in there.  I distinctly heard “Libya” a couple of times.  Then everybody said something that sounded like a hum or a buzz.

After the call and response prayer, it was time for the active prayer.  As the chanter sang different things, we would stand up, kneel, hold our hands palm up, touch our heads to the floor and then repeat and repeat.  Sometimes we hummed again, almost like an “Om,” and sometimes we said “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is Great.”  Prayers were nice and somewhat fulfilling.  At various times I felt like I was presenting myself to a Dom for inspection or a like a cat in heat waiting to be mounted, but given my relationship with Deity, I don’t think those feelings were inappropriate.

After the active prayers, everybody shook hands with each other and said “As-Salāmu `Alaykum”.  As things wound down, announcements for the Center were read and the ladies did individual silent prayers.  I wanted to ask Ahlam about the meaning of the prayer gestures, but she handed me her card and rushed off.  Perhaps I’ll email her.

Despite being constantly told where to sit, everybody was very nice and polite.  Everybody was even nicer after the “Message.”  The older lady who was always sitting next to me even gave me her prayer beads.  ”I have another pair at home just like these,” she kept insisting.  

Leaving the Center was a nightmare.  The traffic was like the parking lot of a stadium after a concert.  I finally got out of the security gate and had a nice lunch of spicy pork and fried rice with Mistress Marmot.  

I never saw any women wash their feet, and I never got to wash my feet.

Wonder if he’d wash my feet?

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