Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Sultan Ahmed Camii
(pronounced ja-mee)
Istanbul, Turkey

A new tradition, borne during the first month I was in Istanbul, is to walk to the night prayer at the Sultan Ahmed Camii (Blue Mosque). During that month I went with friends to the nightfall prayer - called Isha - probably a dozen times when the call to prayer sang out at 10:30 pm. Friends told me that it was very different than going in the daytime, during which the mosque was full of visitors, both Muslim and non-Muslim. But night time was the only time I went, so I wouldn't know.

What I did know was that there would be a call to prayer, and enough men praying up front to stretch from wall to wall, standing shoulder to shoulder. The Imam would come out in his robe and instruct the men, who usually crowded in two or three lines behind him, to spread out shoulder to shoulder - all the way across. In this line, with the Imam standing in the mihrab - a prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca - the people stand, bow, and prostrate in prayer.

There is a fence, separating the men's prayer space from the tourist section, and there are small areas tucked behind the back walls in which women pray. One night, encouraged by a Muslim friend, we went up into a small section in the front to try to pray. We were still separate from the men, but were not in the section against the back wall were women are relegated. This first evening, we didn't try until after the prayer had begun and the domes were filled with the reverberation of prayer. The men were all up front and the women all in back by this point, hands spread to receive blessings and bodies bent in submission, so we prayed and then retreated. No issues other than the broken English-Arabic negotiations of my friend and the security guard.

The second night we made the mistake of trying to go to our places before the prayer began, and we were met with strong remonstration. The guard tried to tell us to leave. A few men tried to point out the women's section. And then a thick man had enough authority in his "l├╝tfen" (turkish word for 'please) and enough reverberation of his voice to make us retreat - for me at least, if not for my friend - in shame. I was an outsider, only made brave enough to try by the legitimate desires of my friend who could claim belonging by way of professing Islam as her own personal faith, and the mosque as a structure belonging to that faith. I had no legitimacy with which to disturb prayer, and no voice I was trying to make heard.

While I am an adamant believer that all humans are inherently worthy, and especially adamant that the sexes should each reserve the right to choose their own identities and abilities, unbound by others' perceptions of sex, I am not decided on what it means to 'fight' for those rights. And I am fairly sure that disturbing an entire mosque during prayer - a time reserved for the holy - is not the way to do so.

And so I felt shame. It is a strong tool against social change; shame strums some of the deepest strings of discomfort that we all have ingrained in us as members of society. There are certain responsibilities and demands made on us by simply existing among our peers, and though some of these societal rules should be reconsidered, their existence makes up the instrument of culture. That experience hit a wrong note, and I felt shameful.

The men pointing us to the women's section were not doing so hatefully; they simply wanted to begin prayer and could not do so - or so they thought - until we had moved. There is more to the story, including a muezzin (person who recites the call to prayer) and a few men who simply thought we didn't understand and tried to explain it in German, but the point is the same. There are rules to society and music that has been written according to these notes. Changing these rules requires breaking the existing strings so that a new instrument can be strung, one that doesn't make such horrible sounds when you try a different chord.

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