Monday, March 7, 2011

So McCarthyism is cool now, huh?

I read the other day that hearings are beginning in the House of Representatives to investigate the threat of the radicalization of Muslim Americans. All right, America. I'll put this in the same column as the bill that passed the House cutting funding for Planned Parenthood: signs that you just need to be allowed to throw your little temper tantrum until you get rid of all that excess anger and cry yourself to sleep. I will also let other, better informed people get angry and write about this. Instead, I'm going to take a deep breath and try to let my frustration go, so that I can tell you about something I see every day and only recently realized I had kind of weirdly missed during my ten-day semi-vacation in the States. Muslims in prayer.

Those of you who have been educated enough to realize that Islam is not an inherently violent and hateful religion also probably know that Muslims pray five times a day while facing the holy city of Mecca.

Ok. There was still too much anger in that sentence for me to continue writing what I intended as a post about peace and prayer.

Give me a minute, and a fresh start.

In the two years that I've been here, no Senegalese has ever tried to evangelize me. No fighting words about the state of my soul, no passionate diatribe about Allah and His will, no assurances that I'd be happier as a Muslim. The people in my village haven't even shown much interest in what I do believe. I remember one conversation, though, with a woman in my compound, Maguette. She's a sort of distant cousin of the family. Since her husband lives and works in Dakar, she stays here with us, his mother, and her three small children.

One afternoon, Maguette walked out of her room and sat next to me. I was playing with her youngest daughter, Thian.

"Aissa," she asked. "Why don't you pray with us?"

I mumbled a response about how my parents didn't pray -- a phrase which, in Wolof, is exactly synonymous with the phrase "my parents are not Muslims." In Wolof, there's no distinction between praying and being a Muslim; the same Wolof verb translates to English in both ways. Prayer is the defining act of faith for the people here. Parents teach their children to pray. So really, my response makes a lot of sense in Senegal, as much as we would find it strange in the States.

Maguette seemed perfectly satisfied with my answer. But she wanted to tell me more.

"When I pray, everything becomes peaceful again. I know that Allah will protect me and my family, and I feel that when I pray, but mostly I like that it brings me peace."

Maguette mostly prays indoors, away from others' eyes, which seems to be pretty normal for married women. I can easily imagine why it would bring her peace. Five times a day she puts whatever she is doing aside, shoos her three children away, and is entirely by herself for a few minutes. She's been praying this way since she was a child, and the repeated words and motions of standing, bowing, standing again, full prostration, and sitting up must be a comfort to her in the same way that all familiar things are always a comfort to us. And then to know that all around her, across Senegal, across Muslim Africa, across the world, other Muslims are also bending and rising in prayer -- perhaps that brings her peace. I know it would do something for me.

Her stepmother, Maam Bode, is by now too old to stand, walk, and bow easily. Maam Bode has her own way of praying. She remains seated on the ground, stretching her weakened legs out in front of her, away toward Mecca. Saying over the words carefully and more slowly than anyone else in the family, she brings a handful of sand up to her forehead instead of bending down to prostrate herself.

My host dad prays out loud. You can hear him from several feet away. When he hears the calls to prayer, he doesn't even stop to complete the ritual cleansing of his hands, feet, head, and face. He simply rises up, arranges a mat to be facing Mecca, calls his young son Abib to his side, and begins to pray. Occasionally, mostly during the holidays, his two wives and the young girls of the compound will line up behind him to pray in accompaniment.

Mostly, though, the two wives pray out of site, in their rooms. Only rarely do I see them pray outside, as the girls do. Khady, my host-sister, is about 14. The compound is also temporarily a home to two girls who are studying in Ndiago this year, Adam and Vige. They're both a little older than my sister and further along in school, and both are stricter about praying at the proper times. I noticed that when they came to live with us, Khady became more vigilant about prayer as well. The three of them wash together, wrap their legs in long skirts if they're wearing pants or skirts that fall above their ankles, and cover their heads. They stand in a line on a plastic mat facing Mecca and pray together, chanting the words under their breath, standing and bowing in unison.

Thian, Maguette's youngest daughter, is two and a half years old. She's beginning to speak quite a bit of Wolof, but it'll still be some time before she learns how to say the Arabic prayers. Nevertheless, when the teenage girls or my host dad pray, sometimes Thian will rush to stand beside them. She will watch carefully and imitate their movements, rising to her feet or dipping to the ground just a second after everyone else. I've never noticed anyone getting mad at her for this, even though I can see how her behavior would seem inappropriate.

But she's not mocking her elders or mimicking them for the sake of cruelty. She wants to be a part of the world, and that means praying five times a day. It's another way people here have of affirming their relationship to a greater world -- the world of Islam -- and to each other.

The thing I love the most about watching my family pray is how they seem to create this temporary place of peace and absolute purpose, a small area that exists just for them and what they're doing, just for the length of time it takes to complete their prayers. The moment they kick off their sandals and stand at the foot of a mat, facing Mecca, ready to pray, their posture changes. The place, a small stretch of sand, becomes a holy place. They go through an experience that they share with millions of people around the world, one that connects them all together, in prayer, in peace.

I don't have a good sense of what people are feeling in the States, or what it could be that would lead to the nonsense I'm reading about in the news. But I remember sitting with my family on the anniversary of September 11th, watching the news on TV. There was footage of the two towers burning, followed by a story about that crazy preacher in Florida who had wanted to mark the anniversary by burning a bunch of Korans. My family turned to me for an explanation, since they don't understand French, the language of the broadcast. I explained. They remembered September 11th, but they were confused about the preacher.

"Well," said my host mom. "There are crazy people everywhere: America and here, and everywhere else."

"It's true," I replied. I guess this was enough of an explanation for her. The day's final call to prayer was sung out over the quiet village evening, and my family stirred to rise, wash, and pray. And I guess that was enough of an explanation for me, too. There are crazy people everywhere, and in most places, for most people, there is also peace. Here, I see it. Over there, in the States, I don't know. I hope for it, and let others pray for it.

Love and guts,


  1. well said, well said, well said. peace to you!
    william j. babin

  2. Beautifully written Jessie! In Morocco, the call to prayer is absolutely beautiful and yet I missed seeing people stop what they were doing in the market to prayer. I saw one person praying on the street in 10 days, but perhaps it's because the mosques are huge and everywhere. Thanks for this post.

  3. Jessie -- your thoughtful post reminds me that a simple, quiet reverence is a very good thing -- and, unfortunately, more than most of us in the states can muster.

    be well - always - Cousin Doug