Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 31, 2002

Prayers and pizza

Many times when I have driven east on Claflin Road, I have watched the U.S. flag at Hylton Heights Square waving against the crescent moon of the mosque in the background. The two positioned so closely seem to me to symbolize our nation's respect for diversity.

Friday night my daughters and I attended an open house at the mosque as part of Martin Luther King Jr. Week activities. The girls and I arrived shortly before 7 p.m. and were greeted by men welcoming us with broad smiles and warm handshakes. They asked that we take our shoes off and leave them in the hallway, and then they guided us upstairs. We went into the carpeted prayer room, sat cross-legged on the floor and waited quietly.

After more than 100 had gathered, one of the leaders of the Islamic Center explained the five pillars of Islam: faith in one God - Allah; prayers recited five times daily; charity for those in need; fasting from dawn until sundown during the month of Ramadan; and a one-time pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are physically and financially able to go.

I wondered why there were so many clocks on the wall set for different times. He explained they are set for the five different times that prayers should be said throughout the day. They are changed as the seasonal shifts in sunrise and nightfall occur. That night they were set for 6:40 a.m., 12:55 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5:55 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

At 7:30 p.m. the call to prayers was said in Arabic, and 23 men and two boys lined up in a single row and faced the northeast toward the holy city of Mecca. They bowed at the waist and then went to their knees, touching their heads to the floor, chanting in Arabic as they moved. The women prayed in a separate room, adjacent to the men's. While I had heard the prayers on television before, they had always somehow seemed strange. Being so close to those reciting the prayers made them less so. The girls said they found the prayers the most interesting part of the evening.

After the prayers, people gathered to visit and to eat the foods that had been prepared: beef sandwiches, baklava (sweet flaky pastries made with nuts), twisted bread sticks sprinkled with oregano - and pizza. I wondered if the large number of visitors had prompted an urgent call to the local pizza place.

Islamic materials in English for us to take home were piled on a separate table, which had to be filled several times. My girls were especially fascinated by the fact that the Quran was printed "backwards." Arabic is written and read from right to left and a book begins on what we English speakers would normally think of as the back page.

Many of the Muslims at the gathering expressed gratitude to be in a town like Manhattan, where they said people are so friendly. After the attacks of Sept. 11, people at the Islamic Center received flowers and cards from members of the community and offers to escort women on shopping trips if they felt intimidated.

As men and women mingled Friday, chatting and laughing while children ran underfoot, the scene reminded me of the many church potluck suppers I grew up with. As one man said, "Maybe we aren't as different as we sometimes think."

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