Tidbits of Arabic News translated into English

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Mosque in Washington DC

On my way to the Swedish Embassy, we happened to pass the mosque in DC! So in we went. 

 First glimpse of the minaret as you walk along the fancy street in DC towards the mosque

The mosque has a large courtyard out front, and what feels like several lodges spread out to greet you first. It's like those old manors from the English aristocracy, where you first pass the porter's lodge, and the gatekeepers, and the barns and what not, but now I'm getting a bit too fanciful! There's not big lawns and winding paths, but just office space and a bookstore. You walk into the courtyard enclosed within them and that is where you get to the entrance of the mosque. 

When we got there, a bunch of little kids were sitting on the floor. The buses outside said St. Stephen's and St. Agnes' School. Some of the kids looked serious, others looked impish. They were all clustered around the mosque representative who was talking to them about Islam.

Then, while the little kids were still seated, a group of high schoolers walked in, also clearly on a field-trip. All the girls were wearing scarves on their hair, though most managed to have the tips of their hair pouring fashionably out out the back. The little kids left to get back on their buses, and I remembered how Claudia and Jamie from "The mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" had joined school tours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just by pretending that they belonged. I decided to do the same here. I caught the whole interaction between the mosque imam and the high school kids. 

The mosque representative, who I think turned out to be the Imam himself, was a very kind-looking old man. He has an accent and when he talks he kind of drones on and on. 

First thing, he told the high-schoolers that Islam means submission to God, and that we believe in all the Prophets starting with Abraham. 

Then he said that every year for one month, we fast from "food, drink and bad things", and that this is supposed to remind us of people who have nothing to eat and drink. 

Then he said Islam teaches that we all have pre-planned lives. "Every Muslim in the world believes this," said the Imam. I personally hate it when a Muslim says, "every Muslim thinks this" or "every Muslim thinks that." No, actually, we probably don't. 

Then the Imam said that it's mandatory to give money to "eliminate or reduce poverty," and that this brings intimacy between people, and that money should be donated discreetly. 

FInally, the Imam rounded things off, Muslims go to Mecca. Why? Because Islam is an old religion and Mecca was built by Abraham. 

Then it was the question-and-answer time. And since I actually am Muslim, I of course had many of them. 

I asked: how can we have a pre-planned life, and still have the free will to choose between doing good and evil? 

The Imam said, oh, that's a beautiful question, thank you for that beautiful question. But then he just kind of preached aimlessly about something, I got lost, and I don't think he answered. 

A high school boy asked: why can't you depict Mohamed?

Imam: What?

High school boy: why can't you depict Mohamed?

Imam: What?

So the boy repeated himself yet again, and I think on the third try the Imam finally understood. The Imam said:

Oh, God bless you, that is a beautiful question!

And so it went on. I didn't write down all the answers and questions, so let me describe what the mosque looks like from the inside. 

It's small. It's a rectangular room, but you can't see all of it all at once because columns and pillars rise like a forest. When I say small, I still mean that it held about 100 students tucked onto the floor all at the same time, and could have held many more. But still, it's kind of small. 

The floor is spread with many, many Persian rugs. 

The pillars: I think there were 16 pillars spaced out evenly. Some were pale green marble with a lantern-like lamp posted onto them. Others had garish tiles plastered on them. 

The walls of the mosque were constructed of the same garish tiles. These can be describe as displaying flowery, scrolling designs: dark blue, light blue, green, orange-brown scrolls and blooms on a white background. Each tile has only a small part of the entire design, so you have to see a whole wall of tiles. But really, there's not a bigger image to see. It's just variation after variation of flowery scrolls. 

One of the high schoolers asked: why don't you believe that Jesus was the son of Mary?

The Imam said: we believe that Jesus was a spirit that God conceived in Mary, but not his son. 

While all this was happening, four too-cool-for-this boys sitting in the back were on their cell phones. One boy's boxer shorts were poking out. This particular boy kept lying down, and the girl in front of him kept slapping his knee when he did so. 

Someone asked: how does Islam view other religions?
Imam: we consider Christians and Jews to be 'People of the Book'. 

The pillars rise up, and near the ceiling they all get connected with archways - arches that are very reminiscent of Islamic architecture. They look like this:

Finally, these archways rise higher and become the ceiling. There are insets up there with Arabic words. First, there's a green inset border, then a yellow one, then dark red, and finally white; and a blue background behind everything. The Arabic words are written in white with a red outline, and the same words are written again, just behind the white, but in light green this time. 

The arches and the ceiling are all connected with triangles coming together, and finally, way way up, there's small church-like windows of stained glass - this is the part where the dome is. 

Then, we got to the questions about women. 

High-school kid: Why do men and women separate when praying?
Imam: Because of how we kneel down. We have to only be thinking about God. 

High-school student: Why do women cover their hair?
Imam: Women spend hundreds of dollars on their hair! Why? We need to limit attraction so that no one becomes interested in you. Besides that, after a women gets married, she has to focus on her family. (as an afterthought, the Imam remembered to say: and so does the husband.)

And then someone asked: what is up between Sunnis and Shias?
And this is where it became very apparent just how sunny, united, and brotherly this Imam really is!
The Imam said: Sunni means that we follow the teachings of Mohamed. The Shia is a sect that grew out after 30 years. They believed that Mohamed's son-in-law should take power. They became a political sect. So to summarize, the Sunni follow the law of Mohamed, and the other one came up with a political system. 

I told someone about how the Imam answered that question, and we both agreed, wouldn't it have been better for him to say: you know what, we're all Muslim, we all believe in the same basic things, and this Sunni-Shia fighting happening today is really stupid and juvenile. But clearly, that's not happening. 

Finally, a girl asked about Arabic and how it is spoken. 
The Imam obliged and asked her, "keef al haal", or كيف الحال, or how are you doing? Really, the girl's whole reason for asking the question was so that she could say: I know how to say Asalam Alaykum! So she did that and the Imam gave her a pleased smile, and that was the end. 

The Imam said: it was a great pleasure to have you all here today, with which the student responded by clapping strongly. 

It was time to leave. The assistant Imam walked up and gave instructions. He asked the young ladies to leave and get their shoes first (everyone leaves their shoes by the doorway before entering the mosque.) The Imam said: oh-ho!
So the girls piled out into the courtyard first, and the boys followed. Groups of friends took pictures together, and then everyone took a big class picture. One or two girls unveiled their hair immediately, but most were still wearing their scarves during the picture-taking and everyone seeming very pleased, and I thought they all looked good. 

 It appears the mosque is across from the Spanish embassy!

And finally, they went back to their buses, and one blonde teacher kept her scarf on the whole time. 

Now I just need to finish describing what the walls look like. I said that they have the same garish tiles plastered on, but that's just the lower part of the wall. Above the garish tiles it's just bare white. Above the white, there are the same sort of Islamic-looking arches, except they are laid right into the walls. The insides of the arches are brownish-looking cement, but stars and clouds have been cut into the brown, with yellow panes of glass inserted, and the sunrays come through that. The clouds all have seven lobes, the stars all have eight points. 

Big chandeliers are hanging from the ceiling.

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