My Time to Weep
June 29, 2010 § 1 Comment
It was the last night of Ramadan, the sacred fasting month of the Islamic calendar. I had been living in Morocco for about five months already and though the streets and shops of Casablanca had started to feel more familiar, I was still a misfit in a my new cultural universe.
For the last 30 days I had tried fasting with my friends and colleagues, together and along with all of Morocco, we were waking up before daybreak for one last gulp of water, knowing that at the crack of dawn nothing – not water, bread, milk, the mouth of a lover, or even lipstick – would be allowed to pass through any of our lips.
My best friend Amina had pulled out of her dresser a long dark brown djellaba, the only one I had ever seen her wear. She looked so beautiful and sweet dressed that way. Like a precious porcelain doll, her slight build at 4ft 5inches never stopped charming me.
On the last evening of Ramandan, over 80,000 worshipers would congregate at La Grand Mosque Hassan II – the third largest mosque on the globe rivaled only by the great mosques of Mecca and Medina – for the holiest of prayer services.
Before I could enter, though, I would have to learn the prayers and Amina’s brother Nabil agreed to coach me through them. If I converted to Islam, he and Amina would benefit, he said. They would get points with Allah, and would enter “directly into Paradise,” Nabil pointed upwards with a dramatic sweeping invocation as he said this.
I was given a little tasseled carpet that I lay flat on the ground in the centre of Amina’s living room, a kitsch velvety image of the great mosque at Mecca, Nabil carefully placed facing eastward. “Allahu Akbar” God is Great, he said with guttural certainty. I recited the words in my head and went through the motions of the prostrations. I liked the feeling of resting my forehead gently to the cold tile floor. I liked the shawl wrapped tight around my forehead , the way it hid my long hair from view, bundling it all together. I liked the feeling of my eyes closed and the motions of the prayer. Knees on the ground. Forehead resting gently to the cold floor. The smell of the cold clean tiles and, most of all, the surrender of my body to the ground. “Allahu Akbar “ God is Great. Nabil taught me the last steps of the prayer, about turning my index finger around in little circles while sitting on my knees. Turning in each direction to say to an angel “Assalamulaikum” May Peace be Upon You. And then to face the other side “Assalaumlaikum”. May Peace be Upon You.
Later that night, the three of us piled into a taxi. I slid into the long black vinyl tube seat in the back of the Mercedes taxi, dressed in my new grey djellaba. Nabil got into the front seat with Amina. I didn’t say another word, just listened to them converse passionately in Moroccan dialectal Arabic. Every once in a while I heard my name cut through their sentences, spoken in a French accent “Marie”, and then some more impassioned discourse. I felt like a little girl in that back seat, trying to understand the meaning of her parents’ argument, too young to grasp the adult concepts and worries. But God was great, I thought. I was so excited, and I surrendered to the beauty of the moment, struck by how strange and wonderful it was to be carried to a sacred site of prayer, in a world that was still so utterly foreign, and to have these kind escorts on the pilgrimage. I watched the streets pass by from inside the taxi window: dark forms and shadows on the black streets of Casablanca, and then, suddenly, silhouettes of brighter forms and glimpses of faces at the lit-up intersections. This mysterious city that I now called home, the random people and the foreign world passed by me like a stop motion film reel, each shot filled with its own meaning, telling a story infinitely complex and wondrous.
In the dark, we pulled up to the mammoth mosque that jetted out onto the black sea. I heard the strong Atlantic waves smashing against a concrete support wall of the towering temple, its minaret looming 670 feet above us into the night sky, and I heard distant waves too, rushing at a softer far-off sandy coastline.
I had stopped speaking already and followed Amina’s lead. I’m naturally dark skinned and easily blended with the solemn crowd of worshippers that evening. Nabil took off towards the men’s entrance of the Mosque, and Amina and I slowly walked toward the woman’s door, across a vast flat ivory esplanade leading us to the glowing entrance of the mosque.
There was a guard at the door of the woman’s entrance. Amina greeted him but I kept my eyes glued to the floor and started to remove my shoes just inside the door. I wanted to become totally anonymous and merge into the spirit of the night, with no identity as a “foreigner”- an identity I had been trying to shed for many months now as I tried to integrate into my new home. Smoking myrrh wafted softly through the doorway from the back of the mosque where the women pray. We stepped into the carpeted prayer hall, and I was stunned by the beauty of the massive and expansive room, its spectacular arched ceiling that towered above us. The mosque was filled with thousands of people lined in straight rows and they had already begun their prayers. The muezzin that evening was renowned across Morocco for the profound beauty of his chant and he had already begun his song.
Amina and I found some free floor space and we began the prayers, exactly as Nabil had taught me.
When the prayers were finished, we stood up and listened to the final chants of the muezzin. Our arms hung humbly in front of us, hands clasped in contemplation. I closed my eyes and listened for a long time.
When I opened my eyes many minutes later the room was hazy with smoking myrrh and there was an ineffable stillness to the air, small sparkles of dust floated sleepily towards the ever-expanding archway. To fully absorb the experience, and out of curiosity, I turned my head gently and glanced behind me. There were thousands of women lined in straight rows into the very back shadows of the prayer hall. But when I looked a little longer, I saw that each woman was silently weeping. Each with her eyes drawn shut, soft tears dropped as if in slow motion in the stillness of the massive room. The tears seemed to fall in an atmosphere of total grief and total healing, a spontaneous rite of transcendence.
Stunned by what I saw, later that evening I asked Amina why the women were weeping. She told me it was because of the profound beauty of the muezzin’s song, that his voice was so exquisite in the recitation of the holy Qur’an on that sacred night, that all the women were overcome by tears. I felt I had witnessed on those faces a deep faith I might never truly grasp; but also, the complex layers of a reverence, sensitivity and sadness that lives in the shadows and depths of a woman’s culture I had only barely begun to understand.
Last week, in Montreal, I attended a live Sufi evening of sacred chanting. It was an event I wanted to attend for my 32nd birthday. Seven years have now passed since I was living in Morocco and had this experience of praying in the mosque. In seven years many things have happened to me. I have found and lost love, grown as a woman and human being, experienced disappointments, new sorrows and new joys, felt a new range of emotions that come with the complexities of a full adult life. But more importantly, since that time, I have discovered a new kind of faith, an inner truth I had not fully developed when I was just 25.
So in the dark room of the Place des Arts concert hall last week, I found myself in a front row seat, sitting next to a dear friend. The musicians walked slowly on stage and began their soft chanting and instrumentation. Following them was Sidi Anwar Barrada, a Moroccan Solo Hymnodist whose voice was so strong, elegant and pure that it immediately arrested me. The poetry of his song was so profound that I found something unexpected was happening to me. I was – but for a brief time – silently weeping.
For more information on Montreal’s Burdah Ensemble, please take a look at their website and beautifully crafted music video: