by Safa Ahmed
What the media thinks it is:
Silent. Tomblike. Wakes up five times a day for the prayer – men only. Closed to non-Muslims. Unfriendly. Cold. Terrorist Training Camp. Bombs in the bathroom. Muskets in the minarets. A mass grave in the back, where those loyal to democracy are buried. Burned American flags. An angry-looking man with a huge beard thundering “JIHAD!” and “ALLAHU AKBAR!”. Turbans. Face veils that cover blackened eyes. Free brass knuckles for men who wore out their last sets beating their wives. Beards, big ones. Chopped-off hands and feet. Anger. Explosions. Burnt cars. Terror. A remote building in the middle of nowhere so the pagans won’t suspect anything. Don’t think – if one springs up in your area, vandalize it, burn it to the ground, and then spit on the ashes. The world will be safer that way.
For those who dare to go inside:
Smiles. Laughter. Women bossing the men around, telling them to make the Sisters’ section bigger. Men sheepishly complying. Food. Potlucks. Spilled ice cream on the carpet. Little kids climbing up to the roof, then being pulled back down.
Boys’ nights. Football, 24/7. Girls’ nights. Jewelry-making, talking, thunderous games of soccer and dogeball. Kicking the ball up into the ceiling. Running away when a piece of the tile falls out. Throwing rubber balls at the Youth Director. Bake-offs. Teasing the shaykh about his accent. Being teased right back. Quran recitation. Speakers. Non-Muslims wandering in and out.
Ramadan – overflowing crowds. Hugging, always hugging, even if you don’t know them. Keeping the guys away from the girls and vice versa. Lowered gazes. For those who take a peek, Shaykh gives them The Stare of Doom. “Allahu Akbar”, day in and day out, but not a cry for war – a call of jubilation. Headscarves, in a rainbow of color. Uncles with big beards, sitting in the back, sipping tea and looking dreamy. Jihad – yes, it’s there – but taught for what it really is: struggle and overcoming and making a difference in the world and never ever giving up.
Board games. More uncles, this time in polo shirts, playing cricket from Isha time till Tahajjud. Event posters that stay up way past their dates and are never taken down. Sitting outside the door on a Saturday, waving to passersby. “Salam, salam – peace, peace!” Everyone is family. Black and white and brown, millionaire and grocery clerk, professor and illiterate, all standing shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot, for prayer.
Poking fun at the media. Laughing off haters and cheering for those who stand with us. Shedding tears over Egypt, Burma, and Syria. Peace signs and “I LOVE JESUS BECAUSE I’M A MUSLIM” banner in the window. Shedding more tears over Palestine. Joining hands. Being there for each other. All in a tiny wide-window venue in the middle of a shopping center, so everyone can see what we’re really like. Stop and think – if one springs up in your area, don’t judge it, go inside, and then tell everyone what really lies within. The world will be happier that way.
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