12 addresses, in 7 cities, in 11 years.
That pretty much sums up my life since I graduated and embarked on my adventures as a job-hopping nomad – more committed to my news-producing career than any one community. (#TrueStory: I moved so much that I kept broken down moving boxes under my bed as if ready to move in a moment’s notice.) Every new city brought with it a similar set of challenges. Number one for a social creature like me … how to make friends? The logical answer always included finding the closest mosque because what other way is there to meet nice Muslims girls like myself.
The irony is a move across the country at the age of 13 is what led me to stop going to the mosque. I came from Massachusetts where the Islamic center was a second home. It was basically one large prayer hall where the community mixed freely and there was no such thing as a brothers’ entrance and a sisters’ entrance. I loved going there and being part of the community it fostered. I moved to Austin where (in the mid ‘90s) the mosque’s marginalization of women and unbearable condition of the sisters’ area made me feel unwelcome and unwanted. Instead I got my fill of Islamic education, practice and culture at home, in our family’s social circles, from ISNA conventions and through MSA events and activities.
I left all that behind when I packed my bags and began my tour of duty as a journalist. When you move out on your own is when you truly learn who you are and where you stand on religion. How do you behave when no one’s reminding you to pray, telling you what to wear and making sure you stay away from all the haram possibilities a Saturday night presents. I was able to keep up okay with daily practices but man, did I yearn for something more during Ramadan. There’s no joy in observing Ramadan on your own … eating sahoor and iftar on your own, praying by yourself, learning Quran all alone … the loneliness sucks all the joy out of Ramadan. Since I didn’t have any friends I figured going to a mosque could fill that void of community and kinship.
Few things are as intimidating as going to a mosque for the first time as a woman because there are so many unknowns: Do women go there? Is there a space for women? Is the women’s space hard to find? Will I even be able to hear or see the imam? Is my modest attire modest enough for this community? …. and that’s just the beginning of the list. It’s something I didn’t understand until I started trying to find a new mosque to call my own.
I felt like Goldilocks – each place offered something nice, but it never felt just right:
New York City: I heard (this was 2004, before mosques had websites and social media accounts) the mosques in my area of Queens weren’t very friendly to women. The 96th Street mosque was great, but the 80-minute round trip travel on public transportation made going there impractical.
Harlingen: I was able to find some basic information about a mosque there, but couldn’t glean any details about its accessibility to women. To avoid the embarrassment of showing up at a place that had no room for me, I never went.
Oklahoma City: I found a great little mosque here. It was quaint and clean, but the only connection the women’s room had to the main prayer hall was a camera and a TV. While I think this is a decent solution, it makes me feel so disconnected from the imam and his sermon. It’s so easy to get distracted and very hard to connect with the spiritual nature of what the imam is doing. Plus, being at the mercy of an uncle who volunteers as the mosque’s AV guy is a little unnerving.
Dallas: I must say, the DFW community is really great, Alhumdulillah. A great network of mosques with really strong communities. The one I attended had a women’s room with floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the main prayer hall. However, it’s success may have been one of its weaknesses: the women’s section was full of rambunctious and unbelievably loud children, a significant number of women were more interested in socializing than praying and the cleaning crew had a hard time keeping up.
After five-and-a-half years of this I was ready to settle for good enough, but then … a Ramadan miracle! I was in Houston by this time, which in my humble opinion has an ever stronger Muslim community than Dallas (let the Dallas vs. Houston debate begin), and caught wind of a new mosque that opened up in the suburb of Sugar Land, where 20% of the population is South Asian. People who had gone there raved about it the way they rave about their new favorite TV show or a great new restaurant. I knew I had to check it out and it did not disappoint.
The first night I arrived at Maryam Masjid, the very large parking lot was already full. I was directed to the parking lot of a tractor company next door, then a shuttle, which would take me straight to the mosque’s front door, picked me up. As the van pulled into the parking lot the mosque glowed with excitement and buzzed with energy and I thought to myself this is what Ramadan must be like in Muslim countries. The basketball court and sports field were teeming with children too fidgety to make it through taraweeh but still excited to be at the Islamic center and spend time with their Muslim friends. The courtyard, with its small river, cute little bridges and a giant fountain, was covered with women who wanted to be at the mosque, but weren’t participating in taraweeh. On one side of the courtyard were racks of clothes on sale just in time for Eid and on the other side – tables of free food donated by generous members of the mosque. Inside the women’s space was large, grand and peaceful. It was beautifully decorated and well-kept with giant one-way mirrors that gave us perfect views of the main hall and the imam. Both prayer halls were packed with the faithful and the prayer was soul-touchingly beautiful. When taraweeh ended and hundreds streamed out of the prayer halls, it felt like Eid. The whole mosque was brimming with genuine goodwill, graciousness and the glorification of God. And it was like this every night of Ramadan. This is what I had been searching for all those years. This was just right.
Over the next two years, Maryam Masjid was what made Ramadan special again: constantly running into relatives and friends – old and new – and sharing with them the Ramadan spirit … praying in a massive jammat with the imam’s beautiful qirat leading the way and his touching du’a wrapping it up … attending all-night halaqas with renowned scholars in which brothers and sisters sat in the same hall and soaked up Islamic knowledge in a respectful and fostering environment … eating platefuls of delicious and free suhoor after those all-nighters then praying fajr and heading home. I can safely say that in those two years I grew more spiritually and religiously than I did in the last 15 years. And then, the expected happened.
Just weeks after Ramadan 2013, I once again packed up all my stuff and moved to the other side of the continent for a job. While my quest for another mosque began, I knew Maryam Masjid would always hold a dear place in my heart: it made me a better Muslim, it made my Ramadans extraordinary and it connected me to a community I wanted to call home for good. It was a mosque I wanted to attend with my future husband and children. The warm and fuzzies it gave me were something I wanted to carry in my heart forever.
The next time I stepped foot in Maryam Masjid was for the janazah of one of my best friends. That world of warm and fuzzies came crashing down around me. The mosque that brought me such joy and peace was now the scene of one of the most devastating days of my life. The women’s prayer hall, where I had so many night of wonderful prayer, was now where I wept in my mother’s arms. The courtyard, where I shared suhoor with my friends, was now where I sat inconsolably as my husband tried to comfort me. The main hall, where I learned so much from scholars of great knowledge, was where my best friend’s husband stood after her janazah prayer and asked for forgiveness on her behalf. My place of peace was now a sanctuary of sorrow.
After that day I never gave Maryam Masjid a second thought because of what it now represented … until the first night of Ramadan. It had been two and half months since the janazah and as our group of friends sent each other Ramadan messages via GroupMe, we got one from my friend’s husband. It read “Ramadan Mubarak from Masjid Maryam’s parking lot.” I couldn’t help but smile and all those warm and fuzzies came flooding back. I knew if he could go back there and experience the magnificent blessings of Ramadan at Maryam Masjid, so could I. Inshallah, I’ll able to do that one day.