Whilst living in Tripoli, Libya I would occasionally struggle for things to do on my days off due to various restrictions imposed on me. These restrictions were in place to ensure I was as safe as I could be in an inherently unstable country. Being a little bit dense, I’d often completely ignore whatever the state/school/common sense told me and swanned off regardless. This is one such example (originally written on 16 June 2014):
I went to a Mosque today at the bequest of a friend. He knows I’m not a Muslim but he just wanted to show me his ways and beliefs.
Since I’m hadn’t been allowed to drink for a good few weeks, and religion is considered an opium of sorts, I thought the idea couldn’t hurt. Something new and different at the very least.
After a short and typically frenetic car journey, I following Abdelrahime into his mosque. We did all the usual prep – shoes off, ritual cleansing and the like – before my friend asked me to mimic his movements and join him in prayer. He patted a patch of carpet next to him in invitation.
I had no problem with this. I’m an agnostic-atheist but I’d like to consider myself fairly broad-minded. I’ve bowed my head at a Christian prayer, padded about in a skull cap and chanted with Thai monks so why not add a little Islam to my celestial armoury? Anyway, keen to embrace another culture and spiritually enrich myself, I followed my friend’s instructions and crouched haphazardly beside him and spent the next few minutes following his prayer routine.
My abiding memory is that of agony. My knees just won’t let me kneel comfortably which has always curtailed any bids for religious enlightenment or, indeed, a career as a male prostitute. A cross – to stretch the religious theme – I’ve borne all my life.
After we’d finished (mercifully), Abdelrahime asked me how I felt as he manfully tried to pull me upright. Pausing briefly as the white flashes of pain behind my eyes faded away, I eventually whispered ‘peaceful’ but I guess my weak, wincing half-crouch probably told a different story.
As I recovered and offered a genuine prayer of thanks that my kneecaps hadn’t burst, my friend wandered off to speak to his some of his other friends and suggested I take the chance to have a look around.
I was soon approached by a crowd of curious but sceptical Libyans – sceptical of me, not any benevolent power – including the Mosque’s Imam. They asked why I was there. I said I was interested in religion. They’re eyes lit up. ‘Every religion’ I hastily added. I was only there to observe passively if that was all OK with them.
Ten bewildering minutes later, I was sat in a circle looking frantically around for my mate who’d apparently naffed off without me. I was surrounded by a group of very serious, but friendly looking, faithfuls who began to ardently explain the virtues of their belief system to me (which predominantly meant shitting on Christianity it seems). The discussion went on for a fair spell, with people increasingly shouting over others and pointing at me, before I was eventually asked by one of the senior figures to repeat something in Arabic after him. The sentence, I was informed, loosely translated as:
‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed (pbuh) is his messenger.’
Lightly sweating and a trifle concerned, I politely asked why he wanted me to repeat his words back to him. The circle surrounding me was probably three deep now and everyone was leaning in a little too urgently and a little too keenly for my liking.
‘It shows respect for us, our mosque and Allah’, the Mosque official informed me.
‘Oh… Okey dokey then,’ I said, not really knowing what else to do. I then proceeded to stumble through a deliberately garbled attempt at these undoubtedly powerful words. Allah alone knows what I said but it certainly wasn’t what was expected of me.
Regardless, everyone seemed very pleased and any hint of tension that may have arisen had passed. A few more minutes slipped away quite happily before Abdelrahime – my evangelical escort – plucked me from the crowds that were drawn to the curious looking, pasty chap.
We were leaving the mosque with a series of cheerful – and I’ll be honest, fairly relieved – waves when the evening call for prayer kicks in.
‘Can I stay and pray Alex? Would you like to pray too?’, Abdelrahime suggests.
‘Of course mate, I’m entirely in your hands,’ I replied. Who was I to stop the guy praying?
So as the religious ceremony began in earnest, I went off to find a little corner to perform some stretches in, all in the spirit of solidarity. Just as I’m about to begin the Imam approaches me, takes my hand, and leads me to the front of dozens – maybe hundreds – of bemused Muslims, all craning to have a look at me. My friend, nudging people out of the way to get to the front of the crowd, asks the mosque leader what’s going on. Some Arabic happens. Quite a lot actually.
I waited awkwardly to one side, occasionally throwing a half-smile to the waiting mass of people before me. Abdelrahime turned to face me,
‘Alex, did you say you would lead the prayers?, he asks me a touch hotly.
‘Uhm, did I?’
‘Ah. Er, it’s probably best if I don’t’
A little more Arabic occurs before I’m led to the relative safety of the far wall (which is still pretty visible to everyone present). I’m now responsible for holding up quite a lot of people’s religious duty and I’m attracting a few furrowed brows.
Feeling massively self-conscious, the prayers begin in earnest and I hesitantly follow along like a shit back-up dancer, a second or two behind everyone else.
We leave quite quickly after prayers are concluded. Abdelrahime almost dragging me behind him.
(PS; apropos of nothing, a quick note to say I finished that night sucking some petrol through a hose (that’s neither a euphemism nor religious cliche.))