First impressions from the Mosque

Copyrighted by Penny Rebel, 2012.

After my attempts to get in touch with the Iranian/Shia mosques had been unfruitful in the past I googled for a list of all the mosques in my hometown to try again. I was astounded and felt slightly uneasy at the amount of mosques present in my hometown alone. I found one in Little Orient close to the train station, which was a relief. It is a bad neighborhood nowadays and even with my hair covered my blue eyes and fair complexion would “give me away” as a German and I didn’t want to be amongst the many German girls that had been attacked due to their being “infidels”… Image I e-mailed the Imam and got a reply only a few hours later to come to Islam class at the mosque today. So I covered my head somewhat and went up there. I avoided directly looking at the guys flocking outside the mosque, and out of the corner of my eye saw they either politely ignored me or glanced at me and swiftly looked away again. The women I passed in the hall all smiled, greeting me with „Salam aleikum, sister“.  I took off my shoes (hoping they would still be there when I returned) and stood in the tiny hallway leading to the prayer room. I wondered whether I should have done Wudu, the ritual washing, before class and if it would be held in there. When another woman entered the hallway with her two kids I asked her whether she knew about the class. She told me she was the instructor, that the Imam was her brother and told me to follow her. „I’m sorry I didn’t ask you if you were new, you kinda looked like you belonged“, she told me. That stunned me a little, but as my slightly paranoid mind works I thought this might be just some flattery to „get me on board“. The carpeted room to the left of the prayer room had no chairs or benches. There were already a few other girls sitting on the floor, talking avidly. A few of them looked up at me as I passed them to find a spot in a corner and also greeted me with „Salam aleikum, sister“. I sat down, wondering how my once broken spine would handle two hours of class on the floor. Since sister Rhada was busy with her children I started looking around. The room filled up pretty quickly. There were girls in Abayas or long skirts and tunics mostly, some wore Khimars, some of them even long gloves and the Niqab (facial veil) that they slung back over their overhead Abayas once they entered. About 30 of the seventy women and girls looked German or „European“, and interestingly those were the ones that wore the most traditional dresses, being covered from head to toe in either black, brown or grey. The girls I guessed were in their late teens or early twenties wore fancy bones (boh-nays = headbands worn underneath the hijab, veil) and colorful hijabs, who they had each tied or arranged individually, just like Western women arrange their hair in various styles. Assessories like purses and jackets or coats (brands is the word, baby!) and cell phones/cell phone „jewelry“ were essential I noticed. I guess I’d never taken a closer look out of fear of being accused of „staring“ when I’d seen veiled women on the streets. I was the only one with make-up. The second thing I noticed was how many small children were running around. The women all looked at them like they were a revelation of some kind, and the children went around to get hugs, candy, and sit down on various girls‘ laps, just to get up a few moments later to play amongst each other. In every conversation I „overheard“ the frequent use of phrases such as „Subhan Allah“ „Insha’allah“, or when speaking of the prophet – „Salla lahu va lehi va salam“. It seemed a little bit like some kind of competition on who could throw in the most of those phrases to me. I was the only one sitting by myself, but soon a chubby girl with a silver headscarf, who’d been looking over at me a few times, came over and asked, „Salam sister, may I sit with you?“ When I got up to make some room she hugged me three times and introduced herself, then asked if I was new and if I was Muslim. A few other girls sitting around joined in the conversation, and I was amused at how they all seemed to *want* to misunderstand when I’d said repeatedly that my uncle and his family were from Iran. „Ohhh, Iraq!“ they exclaimed several times, „how fantastic!“ I thought it best not to correct that mistake, since I knew I was sitting in a Sunni mosque that might just not be too fond of my Shia family.


(photos: Traditional infant mutilation during Shia Ashura-fest)

Sister Sara told me that Sister Rhada who was lecturing would gladly write down my e-mail address for the newsletter and that any questions I might have I could ask her after the lecture. She showed me her note pad of the previous lessons and she looked at me in surprise when she tried to explain a few things in detail that I already knew. I found the familiarity and regarding to each other as „sisters“ to be something very new to me. I can’t say I only had positive thoughts about it, though. Of course this kind of „love bombing“ is very appealing, especially to „newbies“ or possible „converts“ . On the other hand I wondered if it might be that this was not just an environment where people „cared about each other“ but „controlled each other“ as well. Of course that might just be prejudice. Might be. The lecture was about Al-Hassan, the prophet Fatima’s son. Sister Rhada told us that all the Kalifs we learn about in class had special positive traits that we would want to try and integrate into our own lives, to become a bit more like them who had served Allah the best. Al-Hassan was allegedly known for his clemency, mildness and generosity. I remember how mothers had hectically escaped church and also the Synagogue when their babies or small children had started wailing. Here, whatever woman was closest to the child would pick it up and cradle it or put it on her lap, comforting it. Interestingly, the ones to wail were the little boys. And often their sisters, hardly older than their brothers, came over to take them from the women’s lap and take care of them. Again: as many good as negative feelings and thoughts about this. I didn’t know how I felt about the little girls seeming so „trained“ to be the emotional „nurses“ of their brothers. As if sister Rhada had read my thoughts she began telling us about a Hadith which described how the prophet told his grandsons Al-Hassan and Al-Hossein how much he loved them, showed affection, even in public (which was revolutionary back in the day. Or well…not just back in the day, I guess.) She explained how important it was also for men to show affection to their sons, grandsons and also of course daughters and granddaughters without exception. „If we can’t give love we can’t accept love. And if we don’t give love to our children we condemn them to the same fate. That is how society is demolished. Love is key to everything.“ Since she had encouraged questions during the lecture I raised my arm and asked whether that was a statement including all of mankind or just Muslims. “Only Muslims” she replied. “We owe the infidels nothing”. Well, that was good to know, especially since I’d heard her talk about how hard it was living off of “this ridiculously small amount of welfare with 4 little children”. Welfare that infidels paid for.


After 1 ½ hours the lecture ended and Sister Rhada asked how many new students there were today. Shyly, I raised my arm along with a very frightened looking German girl wearing a huge Khimar that seemed to swallow her completely. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was Polyester and how inconvenient the niqab and gloves would be in every day life. Image
Sister Rhada then asked how many converts there were today. 27 women raised their hand. „And how many of you found their way to Islam not because of a man, husband, but by themselves?“ 6 raised their hand. She then invited the sisters to tell their story. The first sister to speak told us how she’d met her Algerian husband, a Tuareg, on our annual Cultural Festival. He’d escaped his home during the civil war as he didn’t want to fight his Muslim brothers. She’d been impressed by his „forgiving nature“ and how patient he was with her when she had first refused to hear anything about Islam. The second sister had met her husband here as well. He was from Mali and wanted to introduce her to his family early on, so they went to Africa to get married in a rush. Her father in law said she would have to convert before becoming married, so she spoke the Shahada (credo) but didn’t start practicing Islam until months later. She’d only started wearing the veil a little less than a year ago. I asked her if her husband had demanded her to start wearing the hijab but she negated that. “I just feel better around him now that I do, but he had nothing to do with it.” Ah yah. Makes perfect sense. The third sister to speak was an 18-year old girl in a brown Khimar. She’d converted 4 years prior to that. She said she’d always liked head-scarves and the women in her neighborhood in traditional Islamic dress for as long as she could remember. When her Dad had married an Indonesian woman he converted, she was 12 then. She started crying when she told us how her father and her birth-mother had come to the mosque to celebrate her conversion with her. Her father had held her hand while they were both reciting the Shahada. She’d been crying so heavily she could hardly finish. And she was crying as she was telling this story as well. The only thing she managed to say was that she was so grateful for all the sisters and especially sister Rhada who’d taken so much time to talk to her about taking the veil, and she felt so much happier wearing it since October last despite having been “stubborn” about it before. One woman was Bosnian-Hungarian, raised in here in my country and hometown though. She’d married a Turkish man who hadn’t been religious at all. In fact she was the one to „re-convert“ her husband. In the end he hadn’t been religious enough for her so she divorced him. I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows a little at that story, but I guess with the hijab down my forehead that wasn’t noticeable. Hopefully. Another girl spoke of how she’d had a hard childhood and she’d always felt like meat to men (…), she’d been into drugs and alcohol and parties and her life had been meaningless. Then she’d met a guy who’d introduced her to Islam and within weeks she’d been a believer and she’s started covering herself head to toe immediately. The sister who’d converted at age 14 raised her hand to ask if sisters wearing a niqab but showing part of their feet in ballerinas were actually committing a sin. Sister Rhada retorted that there were several opinions about this amongst alameen (Islamic scholars). Most said that everything should be covered except face and hands, some said just the eyes were alright to see. And she knew of one scholar (whose long Arabic name I unfortunately forgot as soon as I heard it) who said the feet were alright to show. „Let’s remember, sisters, just because we disagree with someone doesn’t mean we are right and they are wrong. Scholars are not at one with this question, so it is up to the individual what to choose, but even if we disagree to show our feet for ourselves, we may not judge sisters who do so.“ After the matter was „resolved“  sister Rhada said that since there were new „members“ present  she’d explain that after the lecture they were collecting. That was voluntary. There were three envelopes. One was for a Quran school in Mali, one for Palestine (I physically shuddered at the thought of what my Jewish family would think if I donated for the imaginary “Palestine” and to what cause that money would go in the end…I could hardly raise my hand and state that I support Israel, now could I…)


and the last envelope was for another mosque in our home town that needed a new roof. Then one sister raised her arm and asked if we could say dua (petitionary prayer) for a sister who’d passed from cancer the night before. „On Lailat-al-Miraj?“ I burst out, and saw too many arms to count reach for me and hands patting me on my arms, shoulders and back assuringly. „Subhan Allahs“ were uttered and sister Sara delightedly exclaimed, „You know about that? You are destined to become a Muslim!“ Image
So we all turned to face the Qibla (direction of the Kaaba) and before sister Sara could tell me what to do opened both palms as another sister started saying a dua. Again everyone appeared impressed and asserted that I was born to become a “good Muslim woman”. I would have loved to tear off my hijab right then and there to tell them that one wasn’t “destined to become a Muslim” simply because one educated oneself about customs, prayers, holidays of that religio-political cult. As I always do when I study a new religion or cult I tried to feel the words, but mainly I felt what I always feel with anything dogmatic, organized and often monotheistic. Oppression, narrowness, God slipping away from me. I guess I must have been lost in thought, but suddenly everyone was getting up and leaving. My head was reeling from all the information. Sister Sara hugged me goodbye – three times of course – and said she was looking forward to seeing me again next Sunday. A few other girls waved, „Goodbye, sister Penny!“ I think that was the first time I noticed that all the converts had introduced themselves with Arabic names. I vaguely remembered hearing that most converts assume a new name. I’d once had a very heated discussion about this with a Muslim philosopher. My claim was that  converts were the worst religious people in general and especially Muslim converts. „Why do they think being a Muslim has anything to do with being an Arab?!“ I had exclaimed. „And then that ridiculous claim – ‚the language spoken in heaven is Arabic‘ – I’m begging you, this is the 21st century!“ I had talked myself into a sort of frenzy after he had dared call me an infidel headed straight to hell and how he could save me like he had saved so many Western whores if only I let him. „Why all the Arabic exclamations and terms, why do they say ‚Subhan Allah‘, why not say ‚praise be to God if there IS only one God as they say?! It is as if they renounce everything they once were. Religion isn’t supposed to be like that. There is no one true religion but A religion that is true to basic godly principles is for every culture, language and country, because it is about love, understanding, enlightenment, tolerance and peace. Religion should change your life in a way, sure, but not erase it!“ Of course I had fared just as well talking to a wall. There were few Muslim scholars pretending to be “liberal” (impossible to be if you follow the word of the Quran), but in fact I’d known almost nothing but Muslim scholars who weren’t even bothering pretending to be liberal. All they spoke of was death to infidels, Jews especially, glorifying honor killings, acid attacks, child marriage and infant rape, “corrective” rape, jihad and the mutilation or amputation of bodyparts of thieves, liars and the like.
I packed up my note pad, put on my jacket and approached sister Rhada to give her my e-mail address and ask her a few other questions. As I left I passed a few men who were all looking past me. The funny thing is that although I knew it wasn’t supposed to be unfriendly or make me feel ignored but safe it was still sort of offensive. I was invisible because I was a woman. I had to cover up in order not to “tempt” anyone. Luckily Western men mostly aren’t wild animals who can’t contain themselves whenever they see a strand of hair or naked legs in a pair of shorts on a hot summer’s day. The way the Muslim men bowed their heads or averted their eyes had something submissive, as though they were aware of their “guilt” of having “filthy” i.e. sexual thoughts. It’s not a culture that will ever soften, that will ever be watered down or integrate. How could it. If the Quran is the unaltered and only true word of God altering it would be outright “satanic”.
I remember the many times I’d walked down the tunnels at central station after work to get home. And how spring time would bring out the worst in so many Muslim guys that were known to hang out there to sell drugs or hit on Western women without hijabs. Staring, calling things to me, approaching me and asking me out, trying to start some silly and pointless conversation, pick up lines, some even trying to hug or kiss me, blargh. Not every time of course. But often enough to piss me off and scare me. Scare all of us “infidel” girls. I remember how I’d pulled my scarf tighter around my neck and chest and tried to make myself smaller on weekends when I’d tried to get home after Persian class, just to avoid the loudly babbling, yelling, laughing and not too seldomly intoxicated Muslims. But they wouldn’t eat pork, no, no… I tried to imagine what kind of society I would like to live in. One were women were wearing tents so they wouldn’t „seduce“ men by their simple existence? No. One where women ran around in tiny tank tops with the strings of their thongs showing above their hot pants? No, admittedly, not that either. Somewhere inbetween maybe. I thought about the times that I used to go out to party. Why did I put on a short dress or tight pants? „Be honest, Penny“ I told myself. In the hope that a guy would notice me and talk to me? Or simply because I felt pretty, slim, healthy and dressed for myself mostly? A little bit of both? Isn’t the physical appearance the first thing we notice after all? And why was alcohol a given when going out to dance? Well, in my case it was rather simple, I was too shy to dance without a glass of champagne. I liked the taste of champagne, a cocktail or beer, too. And I had never danced with guys, only with my female friends when going out anyways. My friend once told me that the only way to de-stress from her very demanding job was to put on a fancy dress, go dancing, get drunk and just let loose. Everybody was her friend, the world was great and she had no troubles. Whatever one may think of that, it is her right to choose that for herself. Without anyone assaulting her and then saying she wanted it because she was drunk.


By then I was sitting on a bench at the subway station I suddenly noticed. I was still thinking, when I noticed a huge blackness approaching me swiftly. „Salam, sister“, someone cried and bowed to hug me, before I had time to look at them. I felt ashamed right afterwards, but immediately my brain spat out the thought, „Nazgul!“ – the hooded ring wraiths of Sauron wearing long black cloaks. When the girl leaned back to sit next to me in her skillfully embroidered Abaya, I saw her face for the first time. I couldn’t guess her age. Most Arab or Turkish girls from the mosque had looked older than they’d turned out to be. I remembered my Iranian friend Farsaneh complaining that non-Muslims were saying Muhammad was a pedophile but “during those times” Aisha had basically been “a grown woman”. – Really??? Fact is that Muhammad married Aisha when he was almost 50 and she was 5 (in words: FIVE) years old and  thighed her (rubbed his penis between her thighs in order to reach orgasm) regularly, until at long last he had had regular intercourse with his wife when she’d been shy of 9 years old. I also disagreed with those that call anyone who condemn Muhammed’s obvious pedophilia a hypocrite because in medieval Europe most females married at 12 or 13 and bore children shortly afterwards. 12 or 13 girls at least were not pre-pubescent and also they did not live past their mid-thirties to forties in most cases.   „And even today,“ Farsaneh had said, „Arab and Iranian girls are more mature, also physically. I got married at 17 and was already pregnant at 17 also.” I asked her if she wanted the same fate for her two daughters. “Your oldest is 25 and unmarried, is she not? And you are encouraging her to finish collage and date although you have to hide the latter from your husband, right?” She fidgeted for a while and said that we lived differently in Germany after all. “You might, but your husband and most of your male relatives that I’ve gotten to know are still stuck in their medieval thought patterns.” She couldn’t disagree and in order to escape the uncomfortable conversation escaped to the kitchen to make tea.
I noticed I’d been staring at the girl while I’d reminisced about all this while trying to guess her age and proceeded to ask her name. Instead she burst out without smiling „I’m so glad you found your way to the mosque today, sister. How did you like it?“ There was no apparent reason but I started feeling uncomfortable around her at once. Since taqqiya was amongst the first thing I learned when studying Islam I told her how much I’d enjoyed it and how nice everyone was and that I was gonna come back next Sunday to learn some more.  „So are you Christian?“ she asked in the same monotonous voice, still not smiling. „No, I’m…no. I believe in God, but I am not Christian.“ At least Christianity was “one of the three religions of the book” in Islam, somehow I didn’t feel it was a good idea to tell her I was Pagan and very happy with that too. The train was coming in. When she asked me how old I was (she was 15 as I finally learned, but looked like 22) and found out I was getting divorced her eyes widened in shock. „I’ll say dua for you, sister. I will pray for a good husband. A good Muslim, very, very religious, maybe? Very strict! Someone who knows the way and will lead you. Someone you can look up to. You will be so happy”. Okay, that girl was DEFINITELY creeping me out… I thanked her and tried to get off the topic, asking where she would get off. She told me the stop (one before mine, where many Muslims lived) and said, „Well, my aunt and uncle are in the other car, I can see them from here, I didn’t go alone.“ I briefly wondered why her aunt and uncle would be in the other car and if it had something to do with me, but that thought pattern got interrupted by her saying „I can only recommend Islam, sister. For once you won’t go to hell. And it is the best religion, you will find true happiness there. If you are wondering anything, if you want to know more about Islam, you can youtube Pierre Vogel. He’s a German convert, do you know him?“ Holy crap on a cracker, I had trouble not gasping at that name. Of course I knew Pierre Vogel or Abu Hamsa as he now called himself. He’d been a German little league boxer before he’d suddenly converted to Islam. He was part of a group of Salafites who occupied Cologne’s streets and caused traffic jams with their public prayers. He was a violent and dangerous man and so were his followers unsurprisingly. I couldn’t force out more than a quivering, „Yes, I know Abu Hamsa.“ until she excitedly went on. „He is SO strict, but that is good, I mean, he IS only saying the truth. You’ll learn everything you need to know from him. He’s a true Muslim.“


By then people were staring as she was speaking rather loudly and suddenly her voice wasn’t monotonous anymore but shaking with passion and her eyes had a happy fanatic glow in them. I had no trouble imagining this girl having the same expression of devotion on her face when talking about Osama bin Laden. I sat there with my head scarf and all too blue Germanic eyes, wishing I could just sink right through the subway floor into the earth. „So what else are you doing at the mosque?“ I wanted to know. „Do you just go there for class and prayer or do you celebrate holidays, hold events…stuff like that?“ I’m not sure what she answered exactly, I was more intent on watching her facial expression and feverishly glowing eyes as she was speaking to me. Suddenly she said, „This is my stop. I am looking forward to seeing you again!“ She hugged me and got off. I kept on musing about religions that dictate what to eat and how to dress and how uneasy they made me feel. I like Abayas cause they’re comfy and I use them as nightgowns and “house-dresses”, so I have a few at home. I also like Tunics and baggy clothes, but not because I’m afraid people/men might stare at me. We’re all humans and looking around or looking at each other happens, especially in a crowded city as the one I live in. I also think dressing with some sort of “modesty” is not the worst idea. In the West, jeans and shirts, blouses or tunic are pretty modest because while covering everything they are still not hiding or denying the actual body form. On the other hand  rather medieval Abayas and the dishdashas („night-gown-like“ looking gowns for men) are definitely not modest but unusual, unnecessary in this hemisphere as Northern Europe does not have the same kind of heat problem as the Middle East does. And of course it provoke stares, curiosity and slight unease, which has nothing to do with discrimination or close-mindedness or even racism but more with the fact that we all know what devout Muslims are all about. Which is nothing good as (recent) history has proven. I thought back to the first sister who’d talked of her Tuareg husband. Of course he wouldn’t veil himself here, which is what the Tuareg men do back home. The fanatic determination of the people in Little Orient clearly showed that they didn’t even want to fit in. They were happy converting people, they were happy condemning everyone that didn’t follow – not just Islam but their KIND of Islam. And they had more than once condemned democracy and the Western way of life more than once during Islam class. Very worrisome. I know that in Arabic cultures the hair of a woman is regarded as erotic, even today. I also know that the Quran has been misinterpreted by Arab Wahabites and mitranslated by MEN who like to confine women in textile prisons. What most people don’t realize is that whatever you read, Torah, Bible or Quran, Upanishads, Edda… (or whatever other holy text) you should always read it with a history book right next to it. The Arab women of that time were highly vain. They overused make-up, perfume, they dressed with a lot of cleavage showing, etc. Muhammad had advised his wives not to dress like that, but to dress modestly and „cover their chest with their cloth“ to be recognised as Muslims/his wives and hence be left alone by other men. The „cloth“ he speaks of was a lobe of the long flowy dresses (Abayas) that were in fashion during that time. There was originally no word of covering yourself head to toe, covering your hair or hands, that came later in the Hadiths. I’m always very surprised at Arabs who choose to interpret it that way. They are lucky enough to be able to read the original text after all, so they WANT to misinterpret the Arabic it seems. Same with what has been translated as „beat your wives.“ The root of that word has thirty different meanings. ONE of them meaning to beat. Most others having to do with abandon, leave, leave alone. So if a woman is being difficult or unfaithful  men are not supposed to beat her but leave her (alone), also in the marriage bed. I know there have been attempts at an Islamic reform (by people like Marta Schulte-Nafeh and Edip Yüksel for example) but why do these people not publicly speak up against terrorism and the abominable crimes of Islam historically and committed today!? They are cowards in my eyes.  Why are there hardly any Progressive Mosques? I know of TWO in the US. None here… My country has become the playground of either conservatives or Salafites when it comes to mosques. And the only Shia one, which never responded to my e-mails, phone calls and letters about me visiting it, is under the government’s surveillance as it is said to be supportive of the Iranian regime as well as the Hezbollah whose main aim is to wipe Israel off the map. No thanks. Pondering all this and more I remember what sister Rhada said today about tolerating others’ behaviors even if we don’t agree with them. It had sounded so wonderful, I’d perked up my head immediately. Then of course she had negated it all by asserting that this counted for fellow Muslims only. Even if they were wrong we had to reach out to them with love because they might eventually find the true path.  I was still debating in my head when I finally opened the front door, kicked off my shoes and tore off the headscarf. All these scattered thoughts gave me a headache, so I just stuck my head out of the window because I needed some fresh air and also because I heard loud voices outside. I looked down to see two Turkish-looking boys yell at each other, if playfully or not, I couldn’t tell. When I opened the window they looked up and yelled, „Hey bitch, wanna let us up and show you a good time?“ I wonder if they’d done the same if I hadn’t taken off my head scarf only five minutes ago…


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Aretha
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 21:34:50

    Hi i am kavin, its my first time too commmenting anywhere, whgen i read this article i thought
    i could alkso create comment due tto this brilliant piece oof writing.



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