Friday afternoons taste of biryani. Or at least, they used to. Without the constraints of a school timetable, ‘gap yah’ Fridays were for jummah prayers at my local mosque. They sell aluminium boxes filled with biryani outside, and my grandfather knows I like it, so he’d buy three tubs in a blue plastic bag and foist them into my hands, even if I’d already bought some.
I’ve always liked Fridays.
For certain unfathomable reasons, however, the Cambridge week starts on a Thursday. Fortunately enough, with the infinite spare time afforded by a humanities subject, I make the executive decision to give myself a day off, just as the week begins. I’ll work at the weekend to make up for it, or so I tell myself.
My friend had never been inside a mosque before. The masjid wasn’t a place for girls, or so she’d been told. But what a place to start: the round fountain in the courtyard, a sculpture of a stack of books in front, trees adorned with red berries, different styles of calligraphy, the pillars that look like trees trumpeting upwards, reaching circles in the ceiling that expose blue sky.
I hope she loves it.
And she sat on her prayer mat, listened to the khutba with tears in her eyes, and prayed two rakah, and when we came out of the masjid, she didn’t take off her headscarf. And the next time I saw her, Amal was in a cranberry-coloured khimar.
It stuck with me. She had sat under the same ceiling, and the tears had come, while I might deeply love the mosque with my mind, but there’s a blockage in my heart.
‘So which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?’
So the next week, I resolved that if it stopped pouring, I’d try again. Ten minutes before booking for jummah closed, the rain stopped. The sun finally cracked through the clouds. I got my ticket, stuffed a prayer mat into my bag and left college.
It’s about 45 minutes if I walk quickly. It took me a couple of weeks to learn the route by heart: past the Mathematical Bridge, right at the robemakers on Silver Street, left at Fitzbillies cafe. Crows congregate at Parker’s Piece, where Freshers’ Fair usually takes place (there’s a sly smile as I visualise where the isoc stall would have been, in another time). As I get to Mill Road, it begins to feel less like Cambridge and more like London, with its multicultural shops, its shisha lounge, the halal butchers. Two moustached ‘amos sit outside an Arab café, gesticulating in that animated way distinctive to immigrant uncles. Passing some unseen restaurant, a warm wave of Lebanese rice and meat fills the air for a moment. I walk up the bridge covered in brightly coloured murals, red ivy sprawling up the houses on my left. Two hijabis speak to a white man, who faces away from me. I sidestep them and quicken my pace, but there’s an inexplicable impulse to turn around. Just as I do, the man — whose face I immediately recognise — turns and walks away, before I get the chance to say salaam. And there I am on Mill Road, with a grin on my face, fangirling over Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad.
One hand sanitiser pump and a temperature check later, I’m still smiling when I enter the masjid. It’s so full of light and air. I’d been to Selwyn chapel the Wednesday before, all heavy incense and candlelight, with beautiful stained glass. Those wooden pews, too. Catholics must all have backache.
I place down my rug, dark blue geometric shapes with silver embroidery, on top of a sanitised white mat.
Al Fattah, Al Basit, Al Fattah, Al Basit – open my heart, expand my heart, open my heart, expand my heart. Al Quddus, soften it, purify it, let the tears come.
A girl, bareheaded, sits to my left. She looks relieved when somebody offers her a burgundy scarf, unsheathing it from plastic packaging and helping her to drape the fabric. She follows along in salah. There’s something about seeing people experiencing something for the first time, something you might be used to, that awakens your heart.
Mosques are meant to be social hubs, but compulsory face masks make it a little harder to recognise ‘regulars’. Two meters to my right, though, I notice a prayer mat I’ve seen before. Fawn-coloured, soft, an embroidered kaaba in its centre. Matching bag. That’s definitely her. After the prayer, I strike up a conversation with my new friend and we leave together, united in our resolve to avoid uni work. On the way out, the girl in the burgundy scarf giggles when I compliment her jumper and we part ways.
The rest of the day consists of buying cappuccinos and two slabs of fudge on King’s Parade, with the promise of returning to claim our free samples next time. It’s hard to resist the sickly pull of Fudge Fridays, with the entire ground floor of my building hooked by the student discounts — peer pressure at its finest.
Walking back to college alone as the light dwindles, I take off my mask and am struck by a surge of cool air, breathing in the smell of autumn leaves, still damp from the rain and pressed into the pavement and I think this town is mine, now. Perhaps I belong to the town, instead…but in that moment, what I thought was this town is mine, these tree roots and these leaves and the stone and the red brick and the river.
The sun had come out in the nick of time, followed by a string of lovely coincidences, and during the khutba I finally felt tears in my eyes, too. One small intention and it fell softly into place. Iman isn’t only valuable rooted in emotion, though. Faith goes deeper than spiritual highs. Maybe our struggles are sweeter than our gains, and striving is worth more than what comes naturally. I won’t try to play philosopher; all I know is that I was meant to be there.
Fridays taste like coffee and fudge, and smell of leaves, and feel like soft carpet and bubbling excitement and forehead to earth and a blissful sense of shukr.
‘Whoever draws close to Me by the length of a hand, I will draw close to him by the length of an arm. Whoever draws close to Me by the length of an arm, I will draw close to him by the length of a fathom. Whoever comes to Me walking, I will come to him running’. (Hadith Qudsi)
Khutba = sermon
Rakah = cycle of prayer
‘Amos = uncles in colloquial arabic (respectful term for older men)
Al Fattah = The Opener (one of the names of God)
Al Basit = The Expander, the Unfolder
Al Quddus = The Pure (also the one who purifies)
Salah = prayer
Iman = faith
Shukr = gratitude