All the speeches are made in Bahasa Melayu (BM) at Sunday assembly. When the religion teacher gets up to speak, he turns to me on stage and invites me in English to attend a special prayer for the upcoming solar eclipse.
On Wednesday morning I find the whole school in the courtyard. I sit down with a fellow teacher friend. The religion teacher leads the prayer. The boys sit behind him, dressed in their school pants and t-shirts. Behind the boys are the girls, dressed in the prayer garments they brought from home. There is some variation in the color. There are many shades of white, grey, cream, and light blue, a few purple, and one scarlet red. Everyone has a prayer rug. In a covered hall next to the courtyard there are 50-75 girls seated, chatting quietly.
“So ____, are all of these girls on their periods and that’s why they are not praying?”
“Well, maybe, but it seems a little fishy that there are so many.”
I saw one student who was reportedly also on her period last week, and the week before that. Everyone rises and changes positions at the same time while praying, but there are no audible directions.
“Why do they not say the prayer out loud today?”
“Oh they do, we just can’t hear very well because the leader says the prayer but there is no loud speaker, so at the back we cannot hear.”
Prayer ends and the religion teacher goes to the podium and makes a speech about the meaning of the solar eclipse. He holds a tall wooden staff while he talks. About half the girls from the covered hall come and sit at the back of the courtyard.
“What are they doing now?”
“Oh, those are the girls who couldn’t pray because they didn’t bring their prayer clothes” my friend explains.
I am seated on a bench right behind the girls. One-by-one girls turn around and look at me. They seem confused and curious. Perhaps they thought “Oh wait, is Miss Christy Muslim?” Like Orpheus turned to see if Eurydice followed him from the underworld, they turned around to see if what they thought was really true.
“Maybe you can help explain to me why the girls wear special clothing and the boys do not?”
“Well, actually, it is not required that the girls wear special clothing. In other countries, like some Arab countries, it is okay to just wear your normal baju kurong and tudong as long as you are covered.”
“Oh, okay, so this is not all Islam. This is how people in Kelantan like to pray?”
“Yes, we are just used to doing it this way. So if some girls do not wear prayer clothes, it might look very strange and everyone will stare.”
The speech finishes and everyone folds up their rugs and put their shoes back on. My friend says to me “Maybe the eclipse already happened? We might have missed it because of the prayer.” A swarm of students head upstairs to catch a glimpse.
It is the first cloudy day all month. Are we even going to be able to see the eclipse? But there it is! A little sliver of sun. The thin layer of clouds it’s behind make it possible to look right at it without hurting your eyes. “Hello teacher!” “Miss Christy! Good MOORRRNing!” Many students stand with me to watch. This is the first eclipse some students have ever seen. I expect them to be amazed. But instead they mostly say “Oh…..!” and “hehehehe.” I go to another floor where the students are crowded around the religion teacher who’s holding a broken 45 record to shield their eyes.
The crowd disperses and the religion teacher says “minuman?” “Sure, let’s get a drink!” We go to the kantin and help ourselves to big plates of white rice (nasi), whole fish (ikan), and sautéed greens with red chili. Both the men’s dining room and women’s dining room are pretty full, so my friend sets up two chairs at the end of a long table on the boy’s side of the now-empty student dining room.
“We pray because of eclipse”
“What did you tell the students after you prayed? You explained about science of eclipse, why it happens?
“Yes! I explain that it is God, God who makes eclipse happen. We must recognize eclipse as a sign from God.”
“Ah okay, so nice. Maybe do you also explain that moon goes in front of sun?”
“Yes, I explain the importance of following God.”
The religion teacher and I discuss Islam almost every time we talk. He is very open and is eager for me to understand his religion. I am very eager to learn.
“Maybe you can help me to understand. To my American eyes, there are some things here that make me confused. Maybe you can help explain to me? I see you lead prayer, I see the boys behind you, I see the girls behind them. The girls have to wear many more clothes than the boys and they cannot pray if they are on their periods. To my American eyes this looks like it is bad for girls. Maybe you help me to understand why this happens?”
“Good question, yes, that is very good question. In the Quran, God says you have to respect gender. I am sorry to say, but sometimes women have many more emotions than men. They also have different body. Like women can take birth with children. So God says that we must respect this and treat men and women specially according to their gender.”
Our conversation continues. It meanders through heaven and hell, the afterlife, judgment day, premarital sex, the creation of the universe, and the existence of the soul.
“I am so happy to talk with you, to have friend to explain some things to me. Because you know, in U.S. sometimes people do not understand. So I am happy that you can explain to me so that when I go back to U.S. I can tell my friends what you tell me.”
“Yes, yes Miss Christy, good to talk.”
“I apologize for any offense. Maybe I ask too many questions. Do not want you to think I judge your religion too much. I just want to understand so I can tell my friends.”
“No, no offense! I enjoy to talk with you and to show you my religion.”