When I was a child, my mother used to blow on me gently after namaz. It was a folk custom meant to cleanse me of her transgressions, and protect me from the djinn. I did my Juma prayers at Berlin’s Türk Sehitlik mosque seeking that same type of maternal protection. I usually worship alone, because I am very private about my spirituality. This isn’t because I am shy about it. I just don’t want to explain myself. It gets exhausting. My Muslim friends and family are confused by how a “non-believer” can still practice the faith, and the non-Muslims I know have additional cultural barriers that I don’t feel like bridging. I would much rather pray alone with strangers, who don’t question my presence and commitments to the ummah.
Muslims often chastise my behavior as being anti-social, because it is not sunnah to distance myself from the community in such a manner. Communities are difficult though. They provide safety and belonging just as much as they violate individuals by making an enemy of their eccentricities. I am happy that I went to Sehitlik alone. I do not have the energy to explain my identity, sexuality, politics, and spirituality to anyone. It is probably better that way. I find that questions of personal mortality and fallibility are best answered through private introspection.
When I entered the mosque’s compound, I was immediately struck by the tombstones in front of it. I grew up in a Wahhabi household, and learned that marking graves is a form of idolatry. (This is actually just a way to rationalize destroying cultural monuments.) Many of the graves are very old, and had somehow survived the rise of National Socialism. My friends told me later that the Nazis had a very strange relationship with Islam. It’s an especially loaded topic, today, as many American neocons and right-wing extremists argue that Muslims were complicit with Hitler’s crimes against the Jews, and that Islam held a special attraction to the Nazis.
I was particularly taken by an Afghan’s grave from the 1950s. Its residents’ (it’s his final piece of property, right?) name is written in the Latin alphabet as well as cursive Farsi: an interesting sort of multiculturalism. He rests next to Muslims who died in Berlin as far back as the 1920s. It has become fashionable for Western progressives to ask if devout Muslims can consolidate themselves with secularism. I think that conversations like this are the self-worshiping ramblings of snobs, and I cringe at the thought of hearing them discuss veiling in sophisticated West European accents.
I appreciated the Sehitlik graves for reminding me why this rhetoric is nonsense. Muslim graves are proof that we have been here for over a millennium. We just haven’t been assimilated into European society and left our mark in its social and economic landscape the way we ought to have. Yet, we have lived our lives as a part of it, and Europe has built itself on top of our remains. The impossibility of a European Islamic identity is a contemporary myth, promulgated by reactionaries, with a very selective view of history, and culture.
I bowed towards the graves as a sign of respect. Then, I took off my sunglasses and walked into the prayer area. I shuffled past a crowd of people leaving their shoes in a small alcove. I instinctively checked to see if any of them were upside down. There is a superstition that when soles face upwards, that contempt is being shown for the heavens. When I mention the practice to Western atheists, they tend to laugh at its quaintness. I quietly seethe at their condescension.
I walked past the older men in the back, who got to use chairs because they are sick, and took my place in a line of worshipers sitting on the floor. I immediately noticed that the language of the muezzin’s kuthba (a Friday sermon) was Turkish. Usually, I am the outsider in Arabic-language mosques, and am not sure what to do during the rapid-fire passion of an Arab muezzin. It was serene for me to hear words like salah (“prayer”) replaced with more familiar ones like namaz. Although I was still a Pakistani outsider in a predominantly Turkish congregation, the linguistic differences were much easier to bridge.
I felt involved enough in the ritual to remember listening to Urdu-language Sufi mystics in Pakistan. I remember closing my eyes and cherishing the sense of belonging that I have always struggled to find elsewhere. Then the same as in Berlin, I simultaneously criticized my sense of belonging as I experienced it. Would I have been allowed in the mosque if they knew everything about me? Probably not. Still though, I breathed in and allowed myself the indulgence of feeling alive.
Shortly afterwards, we began the yogic poses of namaz. I heard the gentle swooshing of our clothes moving about in a synchronized manner. I smiled at happier memories from my childhood that I have only ever shared with the janamaz. When we finished our prayers, I held my palms together in front of my face. I expressed great sorrow at the growth of populist parties in Europe, and the bloody anguish in Pakistan, Egypt, and Yemen.
I did not believe that I was petitioning anyone to end it. I did not begin rocking myself with my glutes between my ankles while affirming the supremacy of Allah because I thought it would lead to political change. Rather, I simply wanted to express my pain at the bloodshed of a morally degenerate world order. I have learned to be careful about sharing myself with people because I don’t trust them nearly as much as I do the mosque and its rituals. It doesn’t matter if it’s empirically “true” or not. My private invocations of ashadwillah illaha illala ha comfort me, and make me feel at home, far more than my family and friends have ever been able to do. Especially when I go alone.
I put on my sunglasses and walked outside to eat some döner with the other worshipers. I got some tea and quietly enjoyed the flavors as people were socializing and laughing around me. I was happy to be alone in the company of people who didn’t look at me strangely. It reminded me of the peaceful feeling I used to get in the Old City of Sana’a, where I felt serene while eating kebabs and drinking lime juice, enjoying the noisy bustle of the marketplace. I remember secretly wishing that I didn’t have to return to my dormitory in the expat bubble, where I felt like an outsider among the Americans and Europeans. Instead, I wanted to melt into the ancient streets, and disappear into the happy conversations of its residents.
I had that same desire at Sehitlik, despite the progressive attitudes of my very accepting and open-minded Berlin friends. Despite what Angela Merkel says, multiculturalism does exist in Germany, at least for me. However, that does not change the tremendous loneliness and uncertainty that I feel every day in a place that I do not trust enough to call my “home.” It is not quite sadness. As I struggled to explain how I feel in Germany to my Turkish teacher, he stopped me, and told me that loneliness is part of what we as Turks and Pakistanis must experience in the West. I told him that it has always felt as though something has been missing, and he nodded with understanding, telling me that I must answer the question of what that is for myself.
I finished eating my doner and took my last sip of black tea. Before I left, I looked up Ayat al-Kursi, having learned that it is what my mother used to recite before blowing on me. Having finished reading it, I gently blew on my enclosed palms, and exited the mosque, outside of which I was immediately approached by Telekom salesmen. I breathed in and hoped that the djinn would be kept at bay while I seek what is missing from my life.
Photographs courtesy of the author.