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.

When I finish my recitation, I bow toward Mecca before standing to give thanks. My favorite part of the salah has arrived: the sujud, the prostration. Praying in grass or against warm earth, one’s senses are filled with the scent of things growing. With forehead and nose pressed to the floor, the total humility of humankind is made plain. Any pretense of sufficiency is stripped away when you are face down before your lord. In this posture of submission, it is easy to rely on God. It becomes easy to ask of Him.

I have asked in the past for good health, for children and forgiveness. For harmony between my heart and my spouse’s heart, for a sustainable way of living. Sometimes in this position I pray for shade on yom al qiyama, for a wide, lit grave. I pray for a garden under which rivers flow, and for a pulpit of light.

The beautiful carpet is soft under my brow as I ask Allah to be my guide. Please purify my heart, I ask. Please remove all the black spots from it, please make it more alive. Please reward us according to our best deeds, and allow us into the garden without account. The air between the carpet and my face is sweet and cool. It is scentless save faint ozone; as my chest expands in concert with the stars. A sore throat I did not know I had is gently smoothed away.

Finished, I sit cross-legged, tracing the joints of my fingers with the tip of my thumb. Al-Masjid al-Nabawi is only a few kilometers from here. Within it, between the wall of the Prophet’s house and his minbar is his rawda; that is, the section of earth on which coexists one of the gardens of paradise. I have not seen the rawda and so am left charting its boundaries with my imagination. Is the air there, in this tiny section of heaven on earth, as beautiful as that which I now breathe? What does it mean, scientifically speaking, to say that I have never tasted air finer than this?

Through closed eyes, I catalog bests. Some are easy to remember, others are not. I can remember the best pizza I ever ate (spread with anchovies in Milan), the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted (pureed with mint on an Omani corniche), the best perfume I’ve ever smelled (honeysuckle oil stored in a tiny glass bottle in Grandma McCallum’s bathroom. Even after the bottle was empty, she kept it there; I would climb on the sink, slide open the door to the medicine cabinet and take down the empty vial just for the joy of remembering.)

I remember the best movie I ever watched and the best ride I’ve ever taken. The best dress I ever owned was long and bridely white.

The list goes on, of sled rides and playgrounds, of bonfires at the beach. Yet I cannot remember the best water I ever drank, nor the best sleep I ever slept. Bests, in other words, of the essential things elude me. Save the superb air in the masjid, all of the bests I remember relate to wants, to desires. This is what makes today’s air so pleasurable; it is that rare superlative which corresponds to something I need.

The shelves of the world’s libraries are crowded with books which explain how to make things. One can read up on ice cream, its science and history, its myriad worldly varieties, and come away with knowledge of how to make ice cream. One can discover the patterns used for swimsuits or ball gowns, for jumpers, onesies and shalwar kameez. We can cut and stitch and reproduce whatever clothing appeals most keenly to us. From topiaries to potpourri, humankind (by Allah’s permission) has amassed knowledge of how to make many desirable things.

I feel a smile stretch across my face as aveoli shiver with delight. We may be the masters of trinketry, and yet, we cannot produce the perfect air, the sweetest water, the deepest dream. From Allah alone do these things come, these basic, human needs. I imagine the blood flowing through my lungs, happily exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, stretching across capillaries. The miracle of respiration, the simple joy of breathing humbles and delights me.

Now I understand the other ladies’ calm. When breathing alone feels beautiful, it is impossible to feel out of place. Any old air containing the right mixture of oxygen and nitrogen would have sufficed, yet the Most Merciful elected to make the very process of respiration in Quba a sensual joy. I breathe, therefore this is the right place for me. In every breath, there is awareness of the Creator’s mercy.

And finally I understand how this mosque earned it Quranic name. Within its walls, just as beyond them, are signs for people who reflect. In the coolness of air, in the darkness of the night, in the innumerable quakings of leaves upon Autumn’s yellow trees, in the smallness of seashells and the fineness of dust there are more than enough signs for me.


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