When I was younger and first getting to grips with Islam and Ramadan I remember thinking how challenging the month long fast was. Not just the fasting itself but everything else that went with it. The thing that got me was the extra prayer after the last prayer of the day. There is a lot of praying going on. So not only do you not eat all day, but in the hours when you are allowed to eat, you then have an optional extra of set of prayers – called taraweh – to think about doing. Now these prayers are not compulsory, like the five times a day obligatory one but they are popular and people do flock to the mosques after eating to pray them.
It was whilst I was living in Edinburgh and immersing myself in the Ramadan experience fully – not just the detached ritual of not eating during daylight hours – that I began to partake in the extra night prayers. During this time, mosques scour the land and overseas for their favourite reciters, people who can recite huge chunks of the Qu’ran by heart and say it with the conviction, the stamina and the beauty that captivates the listener. In Edinburgh, two reciters from Saudi Arabia were annually brought in and they filled the mosque. I kid you not, it really was standing room only on any tiny spot of mosque ground you could find. I was amazed and then a bit embarrassed by how much of a light weight I had been in previous years of never making it to these extra prayers. During these thrifty days, the entire Qu’ran – all 30 chapters of it will be recited during these taraweh prayers. It’s quite a feat and becomes immensely moving.
Now I am going to a local little mosque near to where I am currently staying just outside east London. The mosque itself is in a house, which has expanded and is growing. It has become a hub. The men prayer outside in what would be the garden, under tarpaulin and some sort of temporary overhead cover. The women have the little semi-detached house, with an extra overspill outside under more tarpaulin. But praying outside is lovely – it’s refreshing. It reminds me of being out in Sarajevo, when I went to pray in the cutest little mosque I had ever seen. It dated back to Ottoman times and had a little balcony outside that we prayed on, with a gentle thunder storm rolling behind us. It was one of those moments imprinted and that I would love to repeat.
Praying under my little tarpaulin overhead cover in Essex is not quite Sarajevo but if I close my eyes, focus on the prayer being recited and feel the cool breeze in the night air on my skin, I could be anywhere.
If I am painting a very spiritually idyllic picture, let me bring in some realities. The crowd control can be a problem, the stampede for a space can result in the most unholiest of exchanges and in the years gone by this mosque also used to have it’s share of ‘hijabis in hoodies kind of groupies’ – the young ones that used to come for the chat and the hanging around. Used to annoy me beyond belief especially after having convinced my lazier self to drag myself there. I often ended up me telling them to shut up so that the women could focus on the prayers and not their chat about their day or their latest crush. One evening I stopped my prayer to stand with them, glowering over them to keep their voices down, as the other’s prayed. This year it’s quiet on the chat front but the space issue still exists. My mum, who is a little unsteady on her feet, uses a chair to prayer instead of standing all the way through and yet women around her kept hustling her to move over, even though it’s quite visibly obvious she is unsteady. Things like this make me wonder at the compassion, the charity and the peace that Ramadan is supposed to invoke. I then get angry and don’t engage with the community – live in my self imposed exile from it. A collection of these experiences has traditionally kept me away from group gatherings in prayer congregations, but for some reason this year I am embracing it again. I am trying a new approach to Ramadan and the night prayers are part of this. I always come back with a bit more of an appetite and a little less sluggish. So it is working for me.
It seems to be working. There are things I love about the taraweh prayer. I love when I am driving to the mosque, I can see individuals or small groups of people either walking to the mosques or leaving, in the surrounding streets leading. Men in white long robes called thobes and little caps. They don’t only wear just this, but when you see this outfit you kind of know where they are going or have been. For me it’s a peaceful image – someone who has just spent an hour in spiritual contemplation and prayer after a day of fasting and yet for many in the UK, the image of a Muslim ‘dressed as a Muslim’ has invoked fear and suspicion.
The mosque is heaving, and when the prayers are over people stream out. It seems bizarre to see such a large group of people coming out of a building, heading for their cars around midnight when the rest of the street are indoors and all the shops are closed. There is a quiet buzz – people are too tired to be boisterous and it’s not that kind of vibe. There is also a lovely smell of musk hanging in the air – people tend to use musk as a perfume including men. It smells so clean, so soft and just reminds me of taraweh prayers every time.
The other night when I was trying to find a place to park – I was late getting in to taraweh – a man who had just left the pub around the corner was weaving across the pavement and then decided to get into the road in front of my car. It was an awkward moment – the mosque with groups of men leaving, a drunk man staggering in the road wondering what on earth the crowds of people were all about. Was it a rave? And who on earth where those people bowing and kneeling inside? Then there was me driving at 2 mph behind him – giving it some road rage. I am not sure who the men in white thobes were most amused by – me being angry or the staggering man.