This year, I have visited two places of worship. This is significantly up on the annual average, which has been, for some time, zero. If you, like me, remain faithless despite best efforts, I am happy to report, per this survey of two: religious buildings contain some very nice people. Ladies, in particular.
During Ramadan, a good friend invited me to a mosque. I was, of course, flattered that she had thought to invite me into the place that her most elevated moments unfold. Before I’d heard the adhan and eaten with the other ladies, I was in a wonderful mood. “Goodness, I’m so multicultural,” is what I probably told myself, to be an honest, awful white girl.
Anxiety pierced through the pride before iftar. First, I fretted that I wasn’t tying my hijab right, so I spent an hour swearing at a beautiful woman on YouTube who had promised to ease all the knots. “All very well for you, supermodel,” I said as she framed an entirely watchable face in chiffon. Honestly, your reporter, who then had just a single scarf in green-and-red tartan, looked less like a person who would wish peace upon the prophet, and much more like a run-down Christmas decoration.
This was the afternoon in the mosque: tasty goods, both baked and cooked, and women who might have been my niece or my cousin or my aunt
Still, I knew that my friend would appreciate that I’d concealed my hair and mirror the respect she had shown me. (Although, she later agreed that I did look like a tatty Christmas decoration.) I calmed myself. And then, it was time to board the train.
You want a quick taste-test of life as a Muslim woman who chooses to worship her god in Australia? Tie a scarf around your head, then walk to the station. You need only to get to the platform, decide that all the stares, which were certainly more hostile than amused by my Christmassy qualities, are too much. You’ll rip it off your head and call an Uber out of fear.
I’d entered the details of the mosque in the app, which delivered me a driver who said, but not unkindly, “What business do you have at a mosque, love?” This was to be a rare Uber: one driven by a white guy.
He was happy for the long job and the surge-pricing, though, and I was able to say—although I did not know then—that this experience would be very similar to going to a social event at a “normal” church. Women eating and talking, praying. Talking again. He said, “I suppose so.” This, in fact, is exactly how it felt.
When I was little, I was required to attend church and Roman Scripture. I am aware that many have terrible memories of their time in Catholicism. This wasn’t the case for me. I enjoyed the baked goods and the lovely ladies who provided them. It was like having dozens of agreeable aunts, one or two of who wished to talk occasionally about Jesus.
This was the afternoon in the mosque: tasty goods, both baked and cooked, and women who might have been my niece or my cousin or my aunt. Some were very reverent, some were very funny, and some were both. One lady was recognised by my friend who said, “Oh. HI again! I saw you here last week.” The lady said, “I’m here every night this month. Because I don’t have to cook, and the food is always so good.”
I had to give up on my Roman Catholic aunts, so much like these Muslim aunts, because I refused to make my first communion. This wasn’t down to precocious atheism; believing that a wafer is the body of Our Lord was not a problem when I was small. Wearing a fluffy white dress, however, was.
I told my aunt that I would be unable to take communion, having never completed my first. She said, “My priest will welcome you. As will I, you know.”
I missed my aunts after that. I missed a place where one could move from the divine to the earthly in a single moment. But I know that they are at the mosque. And, yesterday, I found my own aunt, a faithful Catholic, was still one of those lovely aunts. Building community. Bringing baked goods. Welcoming strangers to the faith and the culture, then letting them go again.
My aunt’s husband died last week at 86. This man, born in Karachi where he was taught improbably perfect English, as the colonised middle-class of British India then were, was the best uncle I could invent. He was funny and hospitable and, if still here on earth, would be gently correcting my grammar.
My uncle’s funeral was in a Catholic place of worship this week. Before arriving at the church, I told my aunt that I would be unable to take communion, having never completed my first. She said, “My priest will welcome you. As will I, you know.”
This year, I have taken the eucharist and iftar at a mosque. God has not been revealed to me, but the gentleness of women who gather in His name has. These faithful aunts, and cousins and nieces. They can knit people together. Even an odd thread, who leaves without any new faith, save for that in the goodness of aunts.
The Mosque Next Door airs Wednesday, 8.40pm on SBS, and continues on Wednesdays. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.