translated from the Arabic by Rana Asfour
Las Vegas was brimming with mosques. As soon as I’d typed “mosque near me” into the Google Maps search, myriad red dots displayed themselves all at once on my screen.
The Al-Hamada mosque, one of the first Las Vegas mosques founded in the Seventies, and winner of a five-star rating, boasted a review claiming that its writer had “felt at peace” as soon as he’d crossed over the threshold. Another described how its congregation had helped “during the family’s short stay in Las Vegas” and that “God is Great.” A perusal of the mosque’s online images seemed to indicate that the building itself occupied a tight space, with no dome or minaret. Most of its visitors appeared to be dark-skinned, which meant the congregation were most likely followers of the Nation of Islam.
I scratched it off my list.
I had no plans to attend an American Salafi mosque. I hadn’t left the shortened robes, the miswak, the scent of musk and the bushy beards in Egypt, only to come here for much of the same. At times, I’d come across them in West Las Vegas as they approached cars stopped at the traffic light, hawking their literature for $10 my brother. One of them honed in on me while I was in my car. Cornered, I lied that I had no cash. No problem, brother, he replied, undeterred as he presented me with a card reader attached to his mobile phone. After I’d paid, I browsed the magazine and found that it mostly contained news of the leaders of the brotherhood.
I quickly moved on to click the link to the second mosque on the list. There, on their website (in the third line to be exact), was a message explicitly indicating that they were open to all races, nationalities, and sects. The recurrent usage of words like “race” and “color” seemed to imply that they did not belong to the Nation of Islam. It appeared that they belonged to the Las Vegas Islamic Center, which was founded in the Eighties.
A further online search came up with the Al Omariya, a mosque as well as an Islamic school. The images portrayed girls as young as ten in their hijab. This website was loaded with proselytization on sound education, proper morals, and the preservation of the nascent Muslim youth. Off the list it came. All I had wanted was to visit a mosque, not send my children to an Islamic brainwashing laundromat. Yet another mosque’s website displayed a picture with a caption titled Bless you, Oh Hussain! declaring its Shiite affiliation. Al-Hikma, on the other hand, had received comments regarding the quality of the food.
Just then, as the waitress came round to clear my now empty beer bottle and to ask if I wanted a second one, Jose Al—– appeared. I stood up to shake his hand and he hugged me and took a seat across from me. He asked me the usual questions about work and family and I answered, albeit distracted, and then proceeded to mechanically ask him much of the same. Once I had a new frothy beer at the table in front of me, I duly announced my plans to visit a mosque.
— Don’t you have a mosque you go to already? he asked.
— No, I replied.
With seven years between us, Jose was still in his twenties. Sleepy-eyed and huge, his large, impressive, and tightly wound muscular bulk was covered in tattoos. He was a bartender at the same hotel where I worked as a purchasing director, in charge of quality control and food storage. But that was before we were both laid off. We met by chance at a work gathering that brought together employees from the various departments to listen to the “motivational” spiel of their managers. In that first encounter, he brought up poetry, and I let on that I not only read it but wrote some myself. Immediately, he extended his hand for me to shake and introduced himself as a poet. And so, we became friends. But we didn’t really talk much about poetry, as his interest and expertise centered mainly on American poetry and a little Mexican, while I read exclusively in Arabic. I confess that I hadn’t read a single poem in English before I’d met him. As one who claimed to write for immigrants like himself, his English poetry was duly peppered with Spanish. Southern poetry. It’s all about fiery, passionate words my friend. Do you get what I’m saying? he’d ask.
When COVID-19 struck, Jose was among the first batch to be laid off. For a while, he scraped by on unemployment benefits and food delivery gigs in his old Kia, until he managed to find work at a large warehouse that imported cheap goods and auto parts from China that were resold in the U.S.
I fail to recall now how Jose met Phil, whom he brought to our second meeting. Since then, he’s become the third in our triumvirate that communes weekly for beer drinking. I remember, back then, how he’d plunked his solemn, imposing self down, asked for his beer and once it had arrived, remained silent the entire time, listening as I explained to Jose the difference between Friday prayers and Sunday church service.
I confessed to Jose that I hadn’t once been to Friday prayers since I’d arrived in the United States. At that, he reached into his pocket and retrieved a black hair tie, gathered his hair between his fingers, and launched into an extensive monologue about the importance of going to the mosque and to Friday service. Even if I wasn’t particularly religious, it was the best way for me to get to know my community, especially since an immigrant could, at any given day, find himself in need of help or support. Generally speaking, he extrapolated, religious people, regardless of their faith, were always eager to help, believing this would bring them closer to God.
I conceded that I hadn’t considered any of this. All I’d been searching for was a clean mosque that I could attend for the afternoon prayers where the ceiling fan dials would be turned to the fastest speed. Preferably, an empty mosque with very few — one or maybe even two — worshipers, reading the Qur’an in a barely audible voice. I wanted to reclaim the time when, as a child, I’d visit the mosque to lay down on its carpeted floor, close my eyes, and let all my worries and troubles spirit themselves away.
Phil piped in that he understood me completely, and that although he himself was an atheist, he could still understand how places of worship could be repositories of energy, able to evoke and withhold soothing communal memories for their congregants. It was a cave in the Valley of Fire State Park that did it for Phil — a place where early inhabitants of the valley had worshiped and prayed. On every visit, without fail, he felt the energy coursing through the place, despite the centuries that had passed.
Phil was five years older than me. I’ve never understood exactly what he does. All I knew was that he was born in Las Vegas, had a big family, and owned a house and a car. Phil, who worked in the deserts of Vegas and Arizona, looked upon his work — shooting documentaries for PBS — as something closer to a hobby in which he went on long expeditions exploring nature, delving into the history of the deserts’ inhabitants, and unearthing extinct civilizations. His theory was that life in the Vegas Valley went through expansive cycles every four or five centuries, during which the valley would flourish, attracting people to settle down and build. Two to four centuries later, depending on the extent of that civilization’s depletion of nature, another drought would strike the valley, forcing its residents to abandon their parched lands, leaving the dust from the heels of their forced exodus to wipe away the urbanization they left behind.
— I don’t get where the problem is, said Phil, interrupting my thoughts. Aren’t there any mosques in Vegas?
I unlocked my phone and showed him my screen displaying the last mosque I’d been researching on my browser.
— On the contrary, I said. I’m spoilt for choice at the number of mosques here. But, I’m at a loss over which one to choose.
—–Read the whole story at: https://themarkaz.org/ahmed-naji-godshow-com/