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Chapter 18
Islam followed right behind, hardly a year later. I was fifteenyears old and I was exploring my hometown. The Muslimquarter wasn't far from the zoo. A small, quiet neighbourhoodwith Arabic writing and crescent moons inscribed on thefacades of the houses.
I came to Mullah Street. I had a peek at the Jamia Masjid,the Great Mosque, being careful to stay on the outside, ofcourse. Islam had a reputation worse than Christianity's –fewer gods, greater violence, and I had never heard anyonesay good things about Muslim schools – so I wasn't about tostep in, empty though the place was. The building, clean andwhite except for various edges painted green, was an openconstruction unfolding around an empty central room. Longstraw mats covered the floor everywhere. Above, two slim,fluted minarets rose in the air before a background of soaringcoconut trees. There was nothing evidently religious or, for thatmatter, interesting about the place, but it was pleasant andquiet.
I moved on. Just beyond the mosque was a series ofattached single-storey dwellings with small shaded porches. Theywere rundown and poor, their stucco walls a faded green. Oneof the dwellings was a small shop. I noticed a rack of dustybottles of Thums Up and four transparent plastic jars half-fullof candies. But the main ware was something else, somethingflat, roundish and white. I got close. It seemed to be some sortof unleavened bread. I poked at one. It flipped up stiffly. Theylooked like three-day-old nans. Who would eat these, Iwondered. I picked one up and wagged it to see if it wouldbreak.
A voice said, "Would you like to taste one?"I nearly jumped out of my skin. It's happened to all of us:
there's sunlight and shade, spots and patterns of colour, yourmind is elsewhere – so you don't make out what is right infront of you.
Not four feet away, sitting cross-legged before his breads,was a man. I was so startled my hands flew up and thebread went sailing halfway across the street. It landed on a patof fresh cow dung.
"I'm so sorry, sir. I didn't see you!" I burst out. I was justabout ready to run away.
"Don't worry," he said calmly. "It will feed a cow. Haveanother one."He tore one in two. We ate it together. It was tough andrubbery, real work for the teeth, but filling. I calmed down.
"So you make these," I said, to make conversation.
"Yes. Here, let me show you how." He got off his platformand waved me into his house.
It was a two-room hovel. The larger room, dominated by anoven, was the bakery, and the other, separated by a flimsycurtain, was his bedroom. The bottom of the oven was coveredwith smooth pebbles. He was explaining to me how the breadbaked on these heated pebbles when the nasal call of themuezzin wafted through the air from the mosque. I knew itwas the call to prayer, but I didn't know what it entailed. Iimagined it beckoned the Muslim faithful to the mosque, muchlike bells summoned us Christians to church. Not so. The bakerinterrupted himself mid-sentence and said, "Excuse me." Heducked into the next room for a minute and returned with arolled-up carpet, which he unfurled on the floor of his bakery,throwing up a small storm of flour. And right there before me,in the midst of his workplace, he prayed. It was incongruous,but it was I who felt out of place. Luckily, he prayed with hiseyes closed.
He stood straight. He muttered in Arabic. He brought hishands next to his ears, thumbs touching the lobes, looking as ifhe were straining to hear Allah replying. He bent forward. Hestood straight again. He fell to his knees and brought hishands and forehead to the floor. He sat up. He fell forwardagain. He stood. He started the whole thing again.
Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise, Ithought. Hot-weather yoga for the Bedouins. Asanas withoutsweat, heaven without strain.
He went through the cycle four times, muttering throughout.
When he had finished – with a right-left turning of the headand a short bout of meditation – he opened his eyes, smiled,stepped off his carpet and rolled it up with a flick of the handthat spoke of old habit. He returned it to its spot in the nextroom. He came back to me. "What was I saying?" he asked.
So it went the first time I saw a Muslim pray – quick,necessary, physical, muttered, striking. Next time I was prayingin church – on my knees, immobile, silent before Christ on theCross – the image of this callisthenic communion with God inthe middle of bags of flour kept coming to my mind.


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