I didn’t know if I was Sunni or Shia until I was 14, and that’s because I asked. When I asked my father what the difference was he just told me that it didn’t matter and that back in Bangladesh everyone Muslim is just Muslim. So I guess I was raised with a moderate version of Islam – the women in my family didn’t cover our hair or go to the mosque, and although we cooked halal meat at home, we didn’t eat halal meat outside of the house. I don’t think I even knew what “sharia” was until the media forced me to confront it. For my family, Islam was as simple as the five pillars: believe in God, observe the daily prayers, give to charity, fast during Ramadan and make the pilgrimage to Mecca when able.
Raised in New York, I moved to Paris over a year ago to surround myself with art, châteaux, and the language of writers. My first Ramadan in France was spent mostly at my kitchen bar by myself- frantically calling my mother and then-pregnant sister for advice on making ginger garlic paste. I was lucky enough to have met a few French-Arabs (they don’t do hyphens in France, but the American in me adds them anyway) that adopted me in their friend circles and family tables for a few iftars. But regretfully, I never went to a French mosque. I think I was too self conscious to go by myself, not belonging to the local community.
This Ramadan, my Palestinian-American friend Enas came to stay with me and I thought the Grand Mosque of Paris would be a great place to finally visit with her. We had spent a good part of the day taking selfies around Paris and along the Seine and we made it to the mosque in time for Asr prayer.
We were a bit taken aback by the crowd outside the mosque when we arrived. First, there were two French military guards in front of the door. A bit intimidating, but necessary after all of the backlash against Muslims since the attacks in January. Second, there were several women in headscarves sitting in the park across from the door, yelling out at us. I would later find out that they were in fact a crowd of Romani women, perhaps waiting for the iftar meal or to use the mosque’s facilities. The Romani or Roma (referred to as gypsies in the US and not to be confused with Romanians) are a traveling people with origins in India. They have mostly Eurasian features as they have spent hundreds and hundreds of years traveling westward across Europe. They have quite a bad reputation here where they are seen as thieves and pickpockets but there are Roma that try to integrate into society as well. Their religion varies and is based on the area of their adopted country. There are both Christian and Muslim Roma, for example.
We stepped over the mosque’s threshold to face a beautiful oriental garden. During the day, the garden is open to the general public for Moroccan tea. There was a West African man at the entrance and we asked him where the women’s section was. He told us we would have to head out to the back garden and then take the stairs down. Yup, the sisters were in the basement again, even in Paris!
We crossed a few women on our way and gave our salams, only to end up a little lost in the garden. We passed the men’s prayer area and asked a gentleman for help. He was either busy on his phone or not that enthusiastic…you know, I never quite know how to interact with the opposite sex in a mosque! There was a second man in the garden who chuckled after seeing us walking in circles and led us downstairs.
One of my favorite duas is the dua for going to the mosque. I didn’t think to read it on our walk over, as I don’t have it memorized, but I told Enas to wait for me at the doorway to the prayer room as I googled it.
اللَّهُمَّ اجْعَلْ فِي قَلْبِي نُوراً، وَفِي لِسَانِي نُوراً، وَفِي سَمْعِي نُوراً، وَفِي بَصَرِي نُوراً، وَمِنْ فَوقِي نُوراً، وَمِنْ تَحْتِِي نُوراً، وَعَنْ يَمِينِي نُوراً، وَعَنْ شِمَالِي نُوراً، وَمِن أَمَامِي نُوراً، وَمِنْ خَلْفِِي نُوراً، وَاجْعَلْ فِي نَفْسِي نُوراً، وَأَعْظِمْ لِي نُوراً، وَعَظِّمْ لِي نُوراً، وِاجْعَلْ لِي نُوراً، وَاجْعَلْنِي نُوراً، اللَّهُمَّ أَعْطِنِي نُوراً، وَاجْعَلْ فِي عَصَبِي نُوراً، وَفِي لَحْمِي نُوراً، وَفِي دَمِي نُوراً، وَفِي شَعْرِي نُوراً، وَفِي بَشَرِي نُوراً، » [« اللَّهُمَّ اجْعَلْ لِي نُوراً فِي قَبْرِي.. وَنُوراً فِي عِظَامِي »] [« وَزِدْنِي نُوراً، وَزِدْنِي نُوراً، وَزِدْنِي نُوراً »] [« وَهَبْ لِي نُوراً عَلَى نُورٍ »]
O Allah, place light in my heart, and on my tongue light, and in my ears light and in my sight light, and above me light, and below me light, and to my right light, and to my left light, and before me light and behind me light. Place in my soul light. Magnify for me light, and amplify for me light. Make for me light and make me a light. O Allah, grant me light, and place light in my nerves, and in my body light and in my blood light and in my hair light and in my skin light.
[O Allah, make for me a light in my grave… and a light in my bones.]
[Increase me in light, increase me in light, increase me in light .]
[Grant me light upon light.]
SubhanAllah I actually felt my body glowing- that’s never happened to me before. It felt like a sort of « divine validation » for being there, for making me feel like I belonged.
Basement or not, the women’s room was huge. Not Blue Mosque huge, but bigger than most NYC mosques I’ve been in.
After the prayer, a Tunisian woman said « taqqabal Allahu, » (May Allah accept it) to which I stared back blankly. Luckily Enas came in for the save and taught me « minna wa minkum » (from you and me both).
They had a brief conversation in Arabic and apparently the Tunisian dialect was a bit difficult for Enas, who speaks the Palestinian/Jordanian dialect. The woman was in France seeking eye treatment for her daughter, a toddler we had passed playing on the steps in the room. We wished her well and headed out, stopping in the bathroom where there was a Roma woman washing herself.
At the exit, we ran into a small man holding what looked like a gazillion baguettes (maybe for iftar?). He asked us our origins, to which Enas replied « Palestinian » and I « American. » Enas looked at me surprised- « but he asked us our origins, right? Not our nationalities. »
I guess ever since moving to France, I’ve felt the need to break stereotypical ideas of what an « American » is- for both white French and the minorities. It’s really only in America (maybe Canada and Australia as well on a lesser scale) that we have the concept of a nationality and culture built by immigrants. As a minority, if you try telling anyone in Europe you’re American you’ll almost always get a follow-up question on your « real » origins!
Exhausted from our day, we still managed to trudge on and take a stroll through the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg before heading to a very French iftar in Montmartre, where Enas read up a bit on the history of the mosque. The Grande Mosque was in fact the very mosque that gave Muslim identities to French Jews to save them from Nazi persecution! We also found out that we had missed the whole front view of the mosque as the back entrance was so fancy we thought that was basically it. #fail
But the day ended well- Enas finally got to try her first real creme brûlée!