I’m having an afternoon snack of fried fish sticks in sweet chili dipping sauce and teh tarik, a Malaysian specialty. It’s black tea with sweetened condensed milk. Delicious! I’m sitting with my friend who doesn’t speak much English, but we get along great through smiles and high-fives. The religion teacher comes in and sits down. We’ve shared meals before, so we’re friendly with each other. He has a slicked back gel haircut and the cuffs of his long sleeved shirt are rolled up past the elbow. He keeps offering me his fried rice.
“Why do you not eat?”
“I am eating! So full! Too many fish sticks!”
“No, no, fried rice! Eat more!”
He starts talking with me about Islam and invites me to the afternoon prayer in the school mosque. He says men and women are separated by a curtain, but that he wants me to be able to observe the whole session, so I should sit at the curtain between the two sides.
A little while later two students come up to me “Miss! Miss! Teacher! You are coming to prayer?”
The mosque is in the school. From the outside it looks just like another classroom. There are shoe racks by the door with dozens of small black shoes, white shoes—mostly imitation Chuck Taylors. My students show me into the women’s section. To the right as I walk in there’s a bathroom for pre-prayer ablutions. The religion teacher explained to me earlier that before prayer you wash your face first, then arms, hair, and legs.
The women’s section is at the back of the room, behind a shiny gold curtain. There’s a row of colorful prayer rugs right behind the curtain. Girls stand in a row at the rugs, tying on the final portions of their prayer clothes. They’re wearing long white skirts under long white tunics, under long white veils. Every seam is fringed with lace. Their faces, hands, and feet are bare.
The teacher who invited me motions for me to come sit at the curtain between the men and women. I silently observe while prayer takes place. They stand, they kneel, they speak. Prayer finishes and the students leave.
The teacher beckons for me and the two students I was with to come into the men’s section. We sit on the floor and he shows me his Quran. He starts to motion for the girls to take the book, then stops and asks them something in the Malaysian language, Bahasa Melayu. I ask for a translation and the girls say “period.” I ask again, confused, and they repeat “period…we cannot touch Quran because of period.”
The teacher is very excited to explain a few of his favorite passages to me, but he does not know the English translation. He whips out his smart phone and pulls up the Quran app. It has a high resolution scan of the Quran that is searchable by keywords and lets you zoom-in to specific passages and translate them into most languages. The students laugh at him as he presses the wrong buttons. They’re from the smart phone generation, after all.
My students tell me that I need to go see some of the really beautiful mosques in the area! The teacher asks “so, miss, what do you think of our prayer?” “Oh!” I say, “I think it’s refreshing to take this time in the middle of the day to calm down and reflect on how you’re feeling. It’s a nice quiet moment.”
“Thank you so much for coming today and observing our prayer! I will give you English copy of Quran so you can understand what we believe.”
“Thank you so much for inviting me.”
“You are welcome to come anytime.”