1. Do it 5 times a day
Just another Tuesday morning in Jeddah.
I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year. During that time, I’m guessing I heard the call to prayer at least five hundred times – and was sick of it after about the hundredth. But then I started thinking…
Muslims are called to prayer (or “salah”) five times a day – and they are expected, if at all possible, to stop what they are doing at each of those points during the day – and pray. The “Adhan” is the call to prayer, and mornings in a Muslim country are filled with eardrum-shellacking wails – also known as the call to prayer – coming over loudspeakers from mosques across the city. “Allah-hu akbarrrrr!” In Saudi, the rigid, ritualistic Islamic state, I couldn’t go without hearing the call every morning – and usually at least two other times a day. I went from finding it interesting, to annoying, to totally being able to block it out…to actually admiring it. It was structured and dutiful and loyal. All the things my Western generation finds so vomitous.
In the Sunni sect of Islam, they say, “prayer is better than sleep.” This is inserted into the morning call. I wonder how seriously some of our own spiritual lives (mine included) would change if we took that same thought seriously.
The infuriating side was that living in Saudi turned into one giant time waste after another. I tried to maintain a healthy respect for the “Salah,” but when you show up at a restaurant or a coffee shop in a time crunch only to have the door shut in your face, not to be re-opened for another 30-40 minutes, it gets to even the most patient of souls. Repeat this five times a day – at sunup, mid-morning, lunch, dinner, and sundown – and getting anything done with your day becomes almost masochistic. But in Saudi, it’s law. Shops, restaurants – all merchants of any kind – are legally mandated to close their doors from the beginning to end of every prayer time.
It becomes day-to-day after a while. It wasn’t long before I learned the prayer schedule and could almost recite at least the first half of every “adhan.” You’d look at your watch and think “ah geeze, here it comes,” as you’d try to slide through a door before it closed in your face and ruined your entire day plan. But even after it became blaisse and I realized that most of my Muslim friends maybe observed 1 of the 5 prayer times – at best – it still always stopped me in my tracks to see the flip side: people pulled over on the side of the highway, prayer mat out on the shoulder of the freeway, kneeling and bowing towards Mecca as cars flew by just a few feet away. Or men flooding into or out of a mosque, stopping their day right where it was to perform the ablution (ceremonial washing) and group prayers. I’ve never seen so much religion and devotion at the same time, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know whether to laugh at them for being such lemmings, or deeply admire the culture for its overwhelming unity and religious dutifulness. As with most things, I came to think the right outlook is probably somewhere in the middle.
In Christian America, we use prayer as a last resort. “Well, the doc says he has two weeks to live and they can’t operate…Everyone, up to the front! Lay hands on him and start praying!”
“Start.” That’s where we start – at the very last. When it’s all hit the fan.
I wonder what it would look like if we treated prayer as more important than sleep, if we pulled our cars over on the highway to pray – if we as a religious culture all prayed at once, unified in time and practice, several times a day. Could you imagine how truly awesome that might be?
. The Abaya
What a bunch of skanks.
Honest truth: after living in Saudi Arabia for a year, that was my uncontrolled gut reaction as soon as I stepped off the plane in London. Seriously. First scrollbar through my brain. No filter. Just my pure honest, first mental words. “What a bunch of sluts.” I was like that 12 year-old at the store who accidentally sees the Maxim magazine and knows he shouldn’t, and feels a little molested and feels guilty…but can’t stop looking because it’s so…amazing. Yeah, same feeling. “Whoa. Chicks. Yeah. I mean…man, that’s a lot of leg.”
I hadn’t seen a girl walking down the streets in short shorts in a long time. And then, bam, I am hit with an airport full of white girls showing every inch of skin they can legally manage.
I don’t think the Western world is a bunch of skanks. The point is the contrast.
It’s funny when you get so used to things you forget the opposite. I was so used to “western” dress that when I got to Saudi, my reaction was, “What’s with all the black bathrobes?? Come on girls, show a brother some ankle!” And then I got used to living in Saudi. And then on the trip back, I got hit with a big ol’ dose of that thing called “reverse culture shock.” Aka, bare shoulders and boobs and legs.
In many parts of the more religious Middle East, women are encouraged and sometimes commanded to wear “abayas” and the “hijab.” Abayas are the long, flowing, usually all-black robes or coverings worn by the women – the hijab is the full or partial face covering, usually optional. To a Western eye, almost nothing could look more out of place, oppressive, or just plain heinous. It was actually a little creepy to be surrounded by all these drifting black-robes. Eerie actually. (The “heejabis” – girls who wear the hijab – are often referred to as “ninjas” by the foreigners, usually good-naturedly, because…well, because with the hijab up, they look like they belong in the Mortal Combat video game.) But I got used to it.
And then – gasp! – I started to appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong, this discussion is only a tiny tip on the massive iceberg of Islamic sexual politics – but in a way, it was actually refreshing not to be constantly confronted by the Western world of sex, sex, sex, all the time, and girls trying to be little Victoria’s Secret models, and their moms telling them that looks are everything, and 40 year-old women trying out-skank the 20 year-old women in sex appeal.
They definitely don’t get it right in Saudi. The women tend to be more cynical about their oppression in public. Some of them aren’t though. I met a handful who said they really loved the abaya – both what it stood for and the way it wore. Any self-respecting Westerner finds that hard to believe, but the contrast is worth thinking about.
In English, “God-willing.”
This is the kicker. It’s one of those little phrases that stick with you forever after you live in a place and use it a hundred times a day.
“Yellah” and “Insh’allah.” Those were my go-to’s. My universal fallbacks. “Let’s go!” and “God-willing” respectively, they make a pretty darn good duo. If you think about it, there isn’t much ground you can’t cover with those two phrases.
But “Insh’allah” fascinated me.
We heard it everywhere, all the time. ALL the time. “Yes, yes teacher, insh’allah I will do the homework tonight.” “Ok, yes, see you at nine, insh’allah.” “Have a good night, insh’allah.”
Insh’allah this, insh’allah that. You couldn’t get away from it; it permeated the whole language, the whole subconscious thought pattern of the Saudis.
Like the other things, it got annoying after a while. I actually remember saying to one of my students, “God’s got nothing to do with you finishing your homework. Do it. I don’t care whether God helps you or not.” This may have been a little, ahem, sacrilegious – and I’m probably lucky I wasn’t fired or assaulted by the “mutawah” (religious police) for such heinous blasphemy of the Almighty, but I’d had it. It wasn’t long before I realized this would-be admirable suffix to everything was nothing short of an excuse to do or not do something if you didn’t feel like it.
The Saudi mentality kind of goes like this: If I say I will meet you at nine, “insh’allah”, that means that I will meet you at nine if literally nothing gets in my way. Maybe I’m asleep and it’s not God’s will that I wake up to meet you. Maybe God is making me not really feel like going out. Maybe God hid my shoes from me. Maybe God made me not feel like looking for them. Oh well. Insh’allah.
You can see how this would get old. Real fast.
But the flip side…
The Saudis are incredibly fatalistic. Driving on the freeway into town one day I looked over to see the usual: a guy driving about 120 mph with a “shimagh.” (The picnic-table pattern headdress…also a peripheral vision obstructor. Yeah, Saudis don’t believe in using side mirrors while driving…it’ll be ok, insh’allah…SMASH!).
“Eh, typical,” I thought. Wait – is that a kid in the front seat? Two…three kids in the front seat?? And they were all just climbing around, just popping in and out of the front seat, like a jungle gym or something – on and off daddy’s lap; and mom was holding a baby in her arms. I guess these guys haven’t heard of car seats.
Wrong. They just don’t believe in car seats. To many Muslims, everything is fate. Everything. Period. And while it initially seems ridiculous, it points to an interesting religious paradigm: that God…wait for it…really is in control. Of everything. All the time.
(The Saudis also have the highest automobile-related death toll in the world, mostly upped by kids flying through windshields. But hey, “insh’allah” right?)
This mindset says that we control much less than we think we do – and a hell of a lot less than we’d like.
“God is big, we are small,” it says. Life is lived, “insh’allah.” He is the supreme power and His will so omni-everything that you best just sit down and shut up for a second. In the Bible, James 4 has something to say on this:
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance.” (James 4:13-16)
Of course, a little primer on human responsibility might help buffer this ethic and save a few Saudi kids from splatting. Insha’llah, they will learn.
In the meantime, I think we power-tripping Westerners would be well-served to inoculate just a little more of the insh’allah ethic into our vocabulary, and our worldview.