But…Hamdi is 20 years old, beautiful, if those eyes are any indication, and, well…I appeal to her brother Hamza.
“Do you agree with this?”
“Yes, of course,” he says, protective as any brother would be. “When she put it on, I knew she was going to get a lot of stares, and people looked at us funny, and it comes with it. [But] it’s something that will benefit her more than bring her harm, in my hopes. The protection is with her Lord. So we really didn’t have much to say about the problems because it was her choice. Some of the elders were against it since we are in the West. But you don’t always have to assimilate to the new place you come to. You can keep your culture. [Though] this is not even our [Somali] culture. It’s more religious. Pious women wear this, ones with a higher [calling].”
Hamdi is studying nursing at Grossmont, and no, she doesn’t wear the veil while she is working.
“The two years since I first put it on have been interesting,” she says. “Going to the supermarket or schools, at first it worries them. It’s a little bit more shocking. I was in a supermarket, and a woman was appalled. She looked at me and said, ‘Why are you wearing this? You’re not in your country anymore. You don’t have to.’ And I explained to her, ‘This is my liberation, because I see this as a symbol. I’ve grown up here, and I’ve seen how the media is, and I’ve seen how [Western] women are treated. And I felt that society can pressure a woman to dress a certain way, to look a certain way. So by me wearing [robes and veil], I feel I’m not subjected to the laws of any fashion or [to please] any man. This is the greatest liberation.’ ”
But didn’t her parents object?
“At first my mom was hesitant, because she felt that maybe somebody might take it the wrong way and try to harm me or say foul words to me. But I think over time now she’s becoming accustomed to it.”
That’s when a kind of rustle goes through the place. I hear a call.
“Juma,” says Hamza. “The holy service. Juma means the ‘group,’ the get-together.”
“Will you please excuse me,” Hamdi says.
Oh yes. Women pray separately from men. Another thing I need to ask her about.
Issa Means Jesus. Musa Means Moses.
It’s around one o’clock. “Follow us,” says Mohammed. We walk down past the Waamo Wireless store to a little station where dozens of guys are taking their shoes off. “Don’t forget your gift to Masjid Al-Huda,” says a sign near a big box with a slit in it for donations. I take my shoes off. Amazing how intimate that one gesture makes the experience feel.
I follow Guled into this large white hall where rows and rows of men, some in shirt and trousers, others in white caftans, line up facing a bearded imam in white garb who stands at a lectern beside a kind of hooped sentry box. I discover that this is a mihrab, a sanctuary, set in the qibla, the wall that always faces Mecca. And it turns out that in some branches of Judaism, the same word, mihrab, is used to describe “a room for private worship.” In fact, the closeness of these three religions starts hitting me now, left, right, and center. I stand between Guled and a guy named Issa, which, it turns out, means “Jesus” in Arabic. His neighbor is named Musa, which means “Moses.” Now we start the ritual prayers affirming that Allah is the one God, and Mohammed is his final, but not his only, messenger. Jesus, Islam believes, was a messenger too. And Moses. We go down on our knees, touch our foreheads to the rolled-out mat for the longest time, pray, and then set back on our heels. At the end of each sequence we sit cross-legged.
Then the imam, Saad El-Degwy, launches into a sermon. He has a powerful voice and switches from Somali to classical Arabic — Islam’s equivalent of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church — and then into patches of English.
“The feast of Al Muharram, which we call Ashura: This is a very special day for all Muslims. Before Islam, Jews and Christians, especially Jews, showed respect to Ashura and considered it as a day of festivities…”
I had had no idea that Ashura (“tenth” in Arabic, also called “the Little Fast”) is the day on which the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, Mohammed’s grandson, is marked, especially by Shiite Muslims, but also, according to Sunni Muslim tradition, the day Mohammed fasted with neighboring Jewish communities to express gratitude to God for the liberation of Moses and the Israelites from pharaoh.
The imam heads his sermon further into surprisingly familiar territory, like Noah and his ark landing on Mount Judi (the same, many say, as Mount Ararat). It turns out Ashura also celebrates the day Noah set foot outside the ark. I shouldn’t be surprised at the commonalities, but I am. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are closer relatives than I ever imagined.
Before we troop out at the end, I ask Hamza where his sister Hamdi has spent the service. He points up to a walled-off upper-level room within the hall. Its white walls are peppered with small openings, big enough, apparently, for sound but not sight to penetrate. “The women’s area,” he says.
We Don’t Know a Lot about Our Religion
For Hamdi, being sectioned off from men to pray is not a problem. “The definition of a Muslim in the Arabic terminology,” she says afterwards, “is one who submits. And in Islam, it is the person who is submitting to the will of the one who created him or her.”
How committed is Hamdi to Islam? Very. “One of my goals is to memorize the Koran, and the Koran is composed of more than 6000 verses. I read classical Arabic. There are millions and millions of hafiz people who have memorized the Koran. I have memorized more than 100 pages. I still have 25 chapters to go. I think one of the greatest phenomena of Islam is that you can take a reciter from China, a reciter from Indonesia, a reciter from Pakistan, a reciter from Africa, and they will all be reciting the same Koran, without any changes.”