The first thing I notice when we walk into the mosque is the noise, a noise that grows louder as we near the bottom of the stairs. Entering into the fellowship area, I immediately see the curtain dividing the large hall into two portions—one side for men and one for women. The woman I’m with explains that it is so the women can have their privacy. I continue to be skeptical about that explanation, but it seems to be the most common one. And once I see the several women with the full face veils—the niqab—come down the stairs, I figure there is at least an element of truth in saying it’s for the women’s privacy. How else are those particular women supposed to eat if they don’t feel they can show their faces in front of the men?
It’s still several minutes until the maghrib adhan, and as we all wait for this call to prayer to begin, eyeing the bottles of water and bowls of dates and watermelon taunting us on the tables before us, the chattering from both the women’s and men’s sides grows louder and louder. Since the women I am with are all speaking in Bosnian, and it is too loud for my rusty Russian to make out the general topic of conversation, I busy myself with looking around the room. Apart from the women in niqab, most of the women are wearing long overdresses called abayas and headscarves in many colors and styles. The words of several different languages assault my ears, among them Bosnian, Arabic, Urdu, and an occasional snippet of English. The tables steadily fill with women and small children, while bigger children run freely around the room, down the hall, and even up and down the stairs. My stomach growls as the scents of soups, meats, rice, and breads waft from the open kitchen across the room. My senses are so overwhelmed that I almost miss the beginning of the adhan.
“Drink! Eat!” my young friend Emina nudges my hand with the bowl of dates.
“We don’t have to wait for the adhan to be done?” I ask. “We aren’t supposed to delay breaking the fast,” she replies as she takes another drink of water.
Nothing is more satisfying than that first sip of water after seventeen hours without any food or drink. A small sip quickly turns into a long swallow, and momentarily the whole bottle of water has been consumed. And the sweetness of one small date cannot be matched by even the most decadent chocolate cake. The gratitude in those first moments of breaking the fast is amplified only by the remembrance that many brothers and sisters have less than that—some having nothing at all—with which to break their fasts. Those in war zones or in areas of famine or political, social, or economic unrest often have only water and maybe grass or other plants they can forage. They have no communal meal to look forward to after the maghrib prayer. Yet, we are blessed with abundance, and that knowledge turns the sweet satisfaction of simple water and dates into a feast of gratitude toward the God who has brought us to this place.
As a white American, I am a minority in this room filled with color. I see sisters who have come to the United States seeking opportunities that their families would not have in their home countries. Many are professional women—doctors mostly—or the wives of doctors and engineers. They have been able to acquire educations and credentials that allow them a somewhat privileged lifestyle. I also see women and children who have come as refugees, fleeing war, political unrest, famine, persecution, and untold atrocities. Their stories are etched in the lines on their faces and hidden in the depths of their eyes.
And again I am overcome with gratitude toward the God who promises after hardship there will be ease.
My mind returns to the present place as we begin moving toward the stairs. Once again I become aware of the noise of chatter and children, of clomping and stomping as we make our way to the prayer hall. This will be my first time joining the congregational prayer, and I am shaking with nervousness. There are rules and procedures and customs, and I am afraid that I will make a mistake.