Browsing Qiblatain

Quba, Breathing (Part 2)


Watching the sisters, I wonder how many of my desires and doubts associated with this trip are really about belonging. It has been four months that we’ve been gone from Boston. Life in Dubai is undeniably blessed. We hear the athan five times a day. At dawn the stillness of the city allows the cries of five different muezzins to echo through my window, each stretching through time like the calling of whales. Materially, the Emirate is beyond reproach. All we are lacking is friends.

I have come to discover that one’s sense of belonging can develop only so far in the absence of friends. An American monk named Thomas Merton once wrote that the basic similarity shared across religions is the critical role that group transcendent experience plays in each. For Merton, community was a foregone conclusion, a requirement of practice.

If Merton’s assertion that religion requires group experience is correct, then the mosque in which I find myself is distinguished indeed. Here in masjid Quba, people have been coming to pray in congregation for longer than in any other mosque. This, I begin to understand, is Quba’s unique blessing: it saw the birth of our jamaat.

My chest begins to loosen. Perhaps it doesn’t so much matter whether or not the rebuilt masjid resembles its earlier self. The angels who join us together in prayer do not depend on historical walls. So many of the very best have bowed upon this ground. It is an honor to join them.

I raise my hands up past my shoulders for the prayer of greeting the masjid. Allahu akbar, I say under my breath. Allah is greater. Beginning my recitation, I notice a profound coolness as I breathe. At the end of each verse I fill my lungs with air which is well water sweet. Read the rest of this entry »

Quba, Breathing (Part 1)


Salim parks on a hill beside Masjid Quba’s gate. “Women’s entrance is up there,” he says. I pin Isra to my hip as I scoot out of the backseat. Our movement stirs up a fine layer of dust from between the seat cushions. The air inside the truck has a powdery mustiness to it, reminiscent of our old blue pick-up with the tall stick shift. It is a smell that I have not encountered in thirty years, and now how strange it seems, continents apart, to find it perfectly preserved.

Down the sidewalk and around the corner we follow Abdur-Rahman. Salim stays with the truck, excusing himself from the expedition in the interest of finding a sandwich. I am struck by his restraint. Only someone from one of the holy cities could pass by the opportunity to pray at Quba so casually. Pilgrims by contrast are greedy. We live by a checklist of blessings which we intend to attain.

As we walk, I think of all the ways that Medina is different from Dubai. Here the night wind is hot and dry, while the evenings are soupy at home. If the streets of each city are its face, then Medina’s brow is lined with age while Dubai is a schoolboy scrubbed clean. Medina tolerates millions of pilgrims, graciously turning a blind eye to their proclivities. Dubai’s patience is more limited. On the subway, bored young Emiratis in army fatigues stand ominously at the ticket machines. Under their watch, no one chews gum, puts their feet up on seats, litters or lingers too long. Dubai is ordered, refined.

Medina, by contrast, is wild. It is a city of heady smells; each of our destinations this evening has carried its own particular scent. The Prophet’s mosque bears the perfume of snowy marble: immaculate, sun-streaked. In the shade of Jabal Uhud, the air smacked of clinkers: of hemoglobin and ash, of soft coal burning. The sidewalk outside Masjid Quba overflows with women selling heaped dried goods. Mint and combs, woven rugs, bricks of brown dried spice: the night wind steeps from these a sultry, airborne tea.

“This is Saudi as I remember it,” Abdur-Rahman says as we pass the sisters by. There is a note of wonder in his voice, as if he has only now remembered something which long forgotten. That is the difference between us: Abdur-Rahman has a point of reference, a legacy of memories against which he can compare. For me, every footstep is new.

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Uhud, 1


He was at times a raucous man, given to wrestling and quick to speak. He looms larger than life in our stories today: Hamza, beating sense into Abu Jahl; Hamza, the first Muslim who dared to pray in the Kaaba’s shade. Hamza, who even mortally stabbed did not give up the fight. The small rough stones of Uhud sigh under our weight. Remnants of sunlight ebb from the sky, leaving clouds increasingly white.  It is maghrib time on the outskirts of Madinah, and everyone hurries to pray.

The martyrs are buried three to a grave, in a square plot on the battleground. A handful of headstones, rough reddish things lacking inscription, mark the place where Hamza lies with two of his companions. The remainder of the seventy rest behind them. The air is bruised with waiting. History can be either sterile or loud, either dry or wet. In the shade of Jebel Uhud, arrows sing, injuries drip. From up the mountain, at any moment, one may hear Omar’s scream. Spears fly, javelins sing, the Prophet’s teeth are broken.

The pilgrims climb down from the mountain where the archers once stood, and pick their way through the rocks to the masjid. A handful of others slowly recoil from the viewing grate surrounding the graves. They ask Allah, with wide sad eyes, to improve the martyrs’ fate. This battleground, the air testifies, is different from the rest. At others, we recall victory. Khyber’s patience, Badr’s courage. The unity between Ansar and Immigrant surrounding the Battle of the Trench. But sunburnt Uhud, overlooking the city, through air perfumed by crumbling mint, is a memory of disobediance. Uhud is a memory of loss.

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