October 16, 2006
Tarawih in the Kingdom, Part 2
Today I got the giggles.
We chose a small makeshift mosque that was close by as the big neighbourhood one was too far to walk after a long day and so we made our way to the small one round the corner. It was tiny, barely holding a hundred people and the women's section held barely a third of that number. The moment I walked in and saw that there was a curtain, a CURTAIN, separating the male and female section, all the piety I had managed to muster evaporated as all I could think of was that the billowing curtain might be blown high enough to expose the two worlds. There would be havoc.
As we began to pray an old woman a couple of feet away from me began whispering visciously in my direction. Alarmed slightly I edged away from her but this only seemed to infuriate her further. After a few more ignored hisses, she grabbed me by my cloak and dragged me in one surprisingly firm move towards her. As I staggered in alarm my mother looked at me barely surpressing a laugh and whispered "You were too far away from her, there shouldn't be any gaps between worshippers." This I knew but had never witnessed it so dedicatedly implemented. I managed to regain my composure and keep praying, bemused by the small, bent octogenarian's strength.
As we stood for the second raka'ah the imam fell silent. He began the verse again but, alas, stalled and stopped. One could hear a pin drop. I had no idea what was going on and looked around lest this was some innovated part of the prayer I had missed but everyone seemed to be patiently waiting. One more time he began the verse and paused. He was stuck and couldn't remember the next line, his mind was blank. I knew how he felt. A hesitant male member of the congregation whispered a reminder (which we heard, a flimsy curtain I tell you!) and the Imam picked up on it confidently launching into the next verse. As we breathed a sigh of relief he paused again. This was mortifying, I didn't know whether to laugh or to be angry at him for disrupting the flow. Again, this time responding quicker to the problem, the prompter provided him with the next word. 'Why don't you lead the prayer' I thought. The fifth time it happened it was a free-for-all and several voices (old and familiar to us now) were autocueing and my concentration was totally shot.
A few verses later, the imam getting over his temporary amnesia, I was distracted again by the noise emanating from the direction of a small gaggle of children who had been brought along by their mothers who supposedly had no nanny or babysitter at home (despite the fact that there was a massive sign politely asking mothers to leave their children at home). They ranged from a ridiculously young, crawling, dribbling, little thing that made its way amongst the praying women to two precocious five year-old girls who were having the most amusing adult conversation about what their fathers did for a living. The two girls had played, bonded, and introduced themselves. "What's your name?" one said. "Fatma" replied the other. "What does your father do?" (a very common question amongst expats in Saudi), "He imports industrial refrigerators." I almost turned around in shock, just to make sure it was them I was hearing and not some women who had got bored of praying and decided to strike up a conversation. After a short chat about what industrial refrigerators do and how they do it, there followed a commentary about what hours their fathers kept in Ramadan and how they really suffered to get up for school in the morning. Something the imam recited made me snap back to attention, probably something about those who strayed in prayer having their own little bespoke river in hell, but the crawling thing made its way in front of my mother and pitched up blowing bubbles. As my my mother came to the sujud, she had to take hold of him and deposit him away from where she was prostrating. He wasn't very pleased and furtively made his way back. As I followed him migrate back to from where he was uprooted, the laughter was already rising. I had no idea what verse, chapter, or raka'ah it was.
Besides, that damn curtain kept billowing, tortuously, tantalisingly and I couldn't relax. The really quite ill, twisted, compulsive-obsessive bint in me started envisioning what would happen if I walked to the curtain and just stuck my head underneath it. Would we all spontaneously self combust? Whould I smile? Stick my tongue out? Or just pretend I had genuinely lost my way, politely apologise and withdraw? The thought was extremely entertaining until I felt that I actually might do it: if I was insane enough to be giggling so uncontrollably, then how far off was I from just pulling the curtain open? As I automatically rose and fell with the congregation I saw a young boy of three or four standing in front of the curtain in total silence, mesmerised. He's thinking the same thing I thought. I kept my eye on him as I prayed willing him to do it. It was just a sheet. The thought of something so thin, fragile and removable separating us was too much to bear. I could see it was bothering him too. Time stopped as I watched the boy watching the curtain, hoping his mother wouldn't stop him. She didn't. His hand went to touch the curtain, he skimmed the fabric slowly, testing his will. The tension was unbearable.
As I craned my neck to get a better view the imam completed the supplication and a woman grabbed the boy. In frustration I completed my total waste of a prayer and then after a pause contemplating the past hour, melted down in peals of giggles. My mother looked at me smiling and shook her head. "What prayer were YOU praying?" I wiped the tears from my face and consoled myself: Allah forgives. Tomorrow there would be another tarawih.
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Posted by: Leena J. at October 16, 2006 11:12 AM
You Bint, are slightly unhinged.
Posted by: Meph at October 16, 2006 12:30 PM
But unhinged in a beautiful way.
Posted by: blue92 at October 16, 2006 11:41 PM
I don't quite know why but this reminds me of Franz Kafka's description of the opening of the Ark in the Prague synagogue he attended as a young boy with his father on the Day of Atonement. He imagined when the entire congregation rose and someone opened the curtain, instead of finding Holy Torahs a crazy, laughing clown would jump out. At least this is my recollection of how he described the moment.
It's a pretty unnerving view of such a sacred ritual & day & reveals just how alienated he felt fr. Judaism, at least at that point in his life.
Hmmm, so I am unhinged (albeit in a beautiful way) and also alienated from my religion. I should post more often, saves a fortune in psychiatrist bills.
Posted by: Bint at October 17, 2006 09:18 AM
Fabulous - trust kids to focus on what's actually important.
But what astounds me is that there are imams in Saudeyya who cannot remember their lines - after all that is invested in the religious establishment!
Posted by: SP at October 17, 2006 12:23 PM
i agree with Meph on this one. you're unhinged. but in a good way. keep up the good work.