I had been struggling with my prayer life, figuring out where and how I could have some peace and quiet in the Big Apple. I tried to petition and call on God, but the words wouldn't come. I wondered, “If a city never sleeps, how does it ever dream? How do its people ever come to a solemn state of rest?” My father, a Christian of no particular denomination, suggested I visit a mosque and learn from the Muslims.
“Watch them pray,” he said, “Their discipline and devotion is admirable. Watching them pray at the exact same time every day was one of my favorite things about living in the Middle East.”
I say I am a well-traveled Filipina, but that only means I have made countless layovers on flights to and from New York. The most traveling that I have ever done is through reading books, therefore I have great expectations of places I have yet to see. I hear “India” and I think saris in vibrant colors, citrus rinds covering a plate of curry, or yogis in lotus position. I hear “Rio de Janeiro” and I think futbol, futbol, futbol!
When I hear the word “mosque,” a flipbook of ideas, images, sounds, and even smells pop into my head. I let my mind cruise through this Rolodex as I sit in the Pelham-bound 6 train. Here I am, a young Protestant raised in a Catholic country, managing all the thoughts sweeping through my head as I near the New York Mosque. I straighten my spine and fix my hair as I get off the train, forcing myself to be, or seem to be, more reverent than I usually am.
The New York Mosque is a block away from the 96th street stop. It stands in a distinctive diagonal direction facing towards Mecca. As the largest Islamic center of worship in the city, it is open to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Both followers and non-followers of Islam are welcome to participate in prayer gatherings. The pale white, cubic exteriors remind me of Russian Constructivism. The design for its interior is inspired by Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
I cross the street after plotting my behavior: Look casual, like a visitor, but not a tourist. Seem as though you have a purpose for coming. I walk towards the main double-doors as a group of chuckling men exit the building. They are staring at me because I am an Asian female, partly out of curiosity and probably partly out of offense. I hold the door open for them, as if my mere presence was not embarrassing enough.
A bearded man in a white Salwar Kameez is manning a kiosk in the mosque’s lobby. His small stall offers typical bodega products – snacks, newspapers, toothbrushes and phonecards. He asks me if I need any help. I tell him I am a visitor and he directs me to the Administrative Office. Before I can even sign in, a bald man asks his assistant to escort me to the upstairs mosque. As we walk, I shuffle past a room packed with kneeling men. They face south-east, bowing in unison and touching the ground with their foreheads.
There is a certain stench in the air. A cacophony of man-sweat, feet and testosterone clouds the place of prayer. The bearded Middle Eastern men whom I expected to see are not present. I steal a glance at the main praying room and see African-American and North African men in half-Western, half-Islamic outfits. They have picked up the “casual Fridays” look – jeans and a traditional Kurta shirt. They all face Mecca with their knees and shins planted on the ground. They chant in different, almost clashing baritones. I try to make out a rhythm, but the more I try, the more they sound like gongs clanging against each other.
I am lead to the third floor, where an isolated sanctuary is situated. We hike up a flight of stairs that are made of industrial tiles, bare of décor or sacred inscriptions. The office assistant unlocks the sanctuary’s white metal doors. He says to lock up behind myself when I am done and gestures for me to enter. He also instructs me to take my shoes off. I stoop down to unbuckle my boots and smell the vinegary scent rising off the granite floor.
The ceiling is 50 feet above me and from it about 50 dim lights are suspended. The lights are hanging by a silver wire in a circle formation, creating a rim of illumination on the carpet below. They are controlled by a typical Home Depot light switch. These suspended bulbs leave no room for candles or incense – the very things which I thought might bring me to a transcendental state during my visit.
The walls are white, but not in an immaculate way. Their paleness create a sterile atmosphere in the room. They do not inspire me to pray.
Wooden shoe bins stand against the back wall. I grin after realizing that they look like shoe bins at a preschool. The prayer room resembles an empty function hall. It has carpet, a moon-roof and two fire exits. I spot crop circles on the carpet and see that its felted strands have been combed to face Mecca. There is a series of crimson and canary yellow squares across the room. They remind me of Kasimir Malevich’s great Square Paintings, and I forget that Allah is the one to be revered in this place.
A desk sits where I expect a podium to be. Two copies of the Kuran sit on it, as though someone had recklessly tossed them there after a tedious ceremony. They lie on the desk like old issues of National Geographic on a stained, dusty coffee table. I am shocked by the metallic trash bin, fire extinguishers and digital heater. Am I at a sacred sanctuary or a hospital?
I am sweating underneath my layers, but refuse to shed them. I feel as though my leggings and cropped cardigan are an act of blasphemy. I decide it is too hot to stay any longer. I take one last look and notice the light from the building next door coming through the windows. It reminds me that I am still in New York. I am still caught in the big city's mental and physical clutter. My thoughts do not rise to the heavens like incense. The mosque wasn't my answer. I whisper to myself, “Maybe I’ll go back to reading.”
Cinelle Ariola Barnes is a freelance non-fiction writer and creative entrepreneur from Manila, Philippines. She attended New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and also received a degree in Journalism and Art History from Hunter College. Together with her husband, daughter, pet Maltese, she makes her home in Charleston, SC. For more info, visit cinellewrites.tumblr.com.
photography by Chris A. Williams