Sharif exited the market with me. He took the first turn with me, and the second. I asked him where he was going.
“It’s prayer time, Zuhr. Where are you going?”
“Busy?” No. “Come, I’ll show you my mosque.”
Sharif was a man aged by his beard. Its gray grew whiter pointing down to his clavicle. Gray hair peeked from underneath his skullcap, and he walked with a slouch in his back and arms drooped. Not a lazy slouch, but one that made it seem as if his confidence came from his words and ideas rather than stature. He likely could hold a room with only his words. So he sunk back for his walk to the mosque and I listened.
Sharif had been in the background when people gathered around me while I was buying bracelets for friends back home. I said my goodbyes and Sharif followed. His English was engineered for communicating with tourists. He manages a series of shopping stalls that sell typical tourism merchandise. It’s there he learns and practices his English.
I told him I couldn’t hear the call to prayer at all. It wasn’t meant to be loud, he said. Here in the city, 15 percent of people are Muslim. It’s a country of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The airport plays Christmas music as people pray towards Mecca near a Buddhist statue.
Sharif glided through busy streets but I struggled to find a clear path through businesspeople and merchants and kids moving every which way.
He asked my religion, I told him, and he said there was still time to convert. I asked why.
“You know, Islam is not terrorism.”
“Islam teaches the good from the bad. Good and evil.”
So do other religions, I said.
Sharif had found a sort of peace in Islam. He prays five times a day, but that wasn’t always the case. When he was younger, he just wasn’t interested in religion.
“Islam teaches afterlife. If you are good, you will have a good afterlife.”
So he had also tuned his English for religious topics.
There are 500 mosques in the capital city, he said, of the total 2500 in the country. The country has about the same proportion of Muslims as the city.
We arrived at a busy street lined with colonial buildings that squeezed out the space between them. He stopped and entered one. It was his mosque, and an almost hidden one at that. The giveaway: a pile of shoes at the stairs to enter. We added our to the pile and entered.
“I will wash.”
He went downstairs, but I stayed on the first level. Men poured from the streets. Men in loose, worn clothes like Sharif, me in business attire. Men who stared at me, men who came to shake my hand and smiled. The pile of shoes was a good indicator of the kind of people inside – and there was no one kind of shoe.
I didn’t need to wait for Sharif, so I ventured upstairs. Men were also beginning to line up facing one wall there as well. The white, bare walls were highlighted with a red carpet. The western wall apparently pointed directly toward Mecca; it supported a wooden door frame, the imam’s pulpit.
The mosque was five floors, the top two empty, the bottom one an ablution station. Construction workers enjoyed a cigarette in the lot behind the building. (I wonder if they had an agreement not to hammer away during prayer times.) A wall of windows looked onto a street bordered by cars angled against sidewalks that fed into shiny shops embedded in beige colonial buildings. Did this building have a use before it became a mosque? When did it change?
A crowd began to form on the western wall. Barefooted men in suits, teenagers in shirts too big for them, men like Sharif wearing a skullcap and ironed white formalwear. I stood toward the back on the second floor as the wave of prayers pulsed. Those praying on the second floor looked down on their counterparts below them through a hole in the floor. Neither floor had more than a few rows of men. Why choose one over the other?
Collective prayer subsided, and each man became his own ripple. On broke off, then a few and several. Among those who stayed was Sharif, choosing to extend his prayer independently. A few of those departing smiled at the white man in the back. Some shook my hand.
Sharif turned and found me leaning against the staircase at the back. He took me outside, not before a man saw me and asked for my phone number. He told me to call when I had time; he wanted to tell me something.
Sharif and I parted on the street. He had to return to work and I was going the other direction. The most important message he wanted to pass on was that his religion taught the difference between good and evil. I told him I would remember that, thanked him and shook his hand. What’s your name?