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.

I wonder, on our way into the masjid’s court, what besides the scent of the air has remained unchanged. Quba was the first mosque ever built by Muslims. It is one of only three masajid mentioned in the Quran, in which it is called the Masjid Founded on Taqwa. The Mosque of God-consciousness. Within its walls, Allah says, are people who He loves.

We round the corner, where white domes overlook an inner yard of marble, red and white and black. Quba was rebuilt in 1986. The architect responsible for its renaissance intended to incorporate the original foundation into his design, but somehow in the construction process, the stones were razed.  Any visual reference to the Prophet’s first mosque has been irrevocably erased. The seeds of misgiving sneak into my heart. Where, I wonder, has the foundation gone?

We reach the stairs which separate the courtyard leading to the women’s prayer hall from the rest of the masjid. I hand Isra to Abdur-Rahman. She slides down his trunk and clings to his knees, singing her “Baba, baba” song. I make my way quickly away from them before she looks at me. While she can tolerate separation, she’s no good at goodbyes.

Soon they are out of sight. I am relieved to see them go; observing the masjid by myself is a guilty pleasure. For the next quarter of an hour, I want to be alone. We have circled the Kaaba together, and we’ve sipped from the same glass of Zamzam. I have chased her across the courtyard of the Prophet’s mosque, beneath a network of awnings like broad, blue veined flowers. As a family, we climbed the archers’ hill near Uhud, and together we have wandered up the narrow stairs of al Qiblatain. I pray that it will be a blessing for Isra and Abdur-Rahman to explore the mosque together, that her company will be a means of reward for him. You have to get used to trusting him to take care of her, I tell myself. You only have seven more weeks.

I think of all the people who have prayed here over the years. Abu Bakr, Salman, Bilal. Hamza, Abu Huraira, Uthman: may Allah be pleased with all of them. Traders, farmers, tribesmen, shepherds, bedouins and slaves: it was after their acceptance of Islam that they became great. But how exactly did the Prophet cultivate their gifts? Here on Quba’s doorstep, the crowds are less than in the Haram. There is space in this dark corner of Medina to reflect, to contemplate growth. What improved the first Muslims, and what might improve me?

Slowly I approach the women’s door, enacting every sunnah which I can recall. With each footfall, I glorify Allah. I practice the supplication for entering the masjid: “O Allah, lighten my heart and lighten my speech. Lighten my audition and lighten my insight. Bless me with light from behind, front, above, under and cover me all with light.”

In the center of the foyer, a woman in a dark grey cloak sits in a chair overlooking the door. I take her to be a beggar. Fishing a few riyals from my purse, I approach her. Instead of reaching forward, she stares at my outstretched hand. Not a beggar, I realize belatedly. Perhaps a security guard? I try unzipping my purse and handing it to her, so that she can confirm that there is neither camera nor phone inside.

She does not search its contents, nor gesture me onward.  Perhaps she is just a woman sitting in a courtyard. Perhaps she is enjoying the smell of the breeze. Having misjudged her twice, I am not eager to do so again. Shyness gets the better of me. I muster a salaam that I hope sounds cheery and back quickly away. Ibtisam as-sadaqa, I cajole myself. Even a smile is charity.

Now there is nothing to do but go in. My thoughts turn from desire to doubt. These are the times when it is easiest to feel lonely.  For Abdur-Rahman, this pilgrimage is the latest in a series stretching back over generations. Since his boyhood he has known the sweetness of the Haramain; aunts and uncles have gone on pilgrimage, he with his parents and siblings reminisce over trips from Karachi to Mecca. What the weather was like, what they wore for Eid. Theirs is a culture of memory.

By comparison, my story is a blank book. The blessings and joys of the Haramain are unknown to my family. We have not even told them that we are in Saudi Arabia for fear of worrying them. During our last visit to Des Moines, my mother pleaded with me to stay clear of the Kingdom. “They don’t let women drive,” she began. “I read a book by a woman who lived there, and her husband wanted to take another wife…” Pulling the contents of my sister’s Christmas stocking from the box of gifts at her feet, she measured a length of satin between the first two fingers of her hand. There unfolded a sordid tale of beatings and the mutaween. Subhan Allah, I tell myself. Far removed from any imperfection is He.

The door to the women’s musala is not properly closed. I press my hand against its face and find it cool to the touch. From its base, a river of sandals spreads across the floor, in places three shoes deep. There are perhaps a hundred pairs jumbled together. How does a person locate her own? Perhaps they are like the bicycles of Copenhagen, communally managed, whisked from destination to destination across the city, never going home. I tuck my own against the wall, where they stand like sentries waiting.

The first thing I notice inside is the carpet. The room, short and wide, is bounded by dark wooden bookshelves, against which the carpet is ruby bright. There must be a special word to describe this shade. It is the red which makes its surroundings instantly seem old: the color of treasure box lining.

Each spot for prayer is marked with an archway woven in gold. It is a familiar motif; as you bend and bow, you are met with the sensation of falling through into the world beyond. In Istanbul Cigdem spoke of the prayer in just such terms. “Imagine that the angel of death is standing behind you, ready to push,” she said, “and that the hellfire stretches beneath your feet.”

The other women gathered in the musalla do not seem to be worried about falling into the hellfire, nor about anything at all. A few children run between the folding chairs on which the grandmothers sit.  I choose a rectangle of carpet in the hall’s left wing. It is neither very quiet nor very busy. Young girls with gauzy black scarves weave past my spot. Mothers supplicate above purses stuffed with kleenex, oranges, keys. How many of those gathered to pray are tourists like me? There is such an effortlessness to the women’s posture that one could be forgiven for thinking that they have belonged here their whole lives. Ya Allah, I pray jealously, increase them in this blessing.

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