Tag Archives: Africa

My First Mosque-take

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?’

‘Yes’

‘Ah. Er, it’s probably best if I don’t’

‘Yes’

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.))

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A close shave

After finishing School for the day, I was pottering about my flat aimlessly when the electricity went out.  Rolling blackouts are very much the norm in Tripoli throughout the summer and – as frustrating as they are – you quickly learn to just get on with things as much as you can. Today however, rather than just sitting about waiting for my Candy Crush lives to regenerate – which happens more than I’d like to admit – I decided to pop out for a stroll and see what’s about.

Now considering it’s Ramadan, everything either shuts very early (2pm) or opens very late (10pm) so I wasn’t expecting very much. I grabbed my tablet – with its vital English-Arabic translation tool – but spotted that it wasn’t working properly. After shaking it a little and turning it off and on, my tablet awoke and decided it was now 2am on Monday, the 1st of January, 1970. As such, after a degree of existential doubt, my Kindle deduced it hadn’t been invented yet and so pointblank refused to function. I shrugged my shoulders, placed it back on the shelf and went for a wander regardless.

Although it was early evening, the heat was still sweltering. I meandered a few blocks going nowhere in particular when I noticed a shop that was open. A cool, air-conditioned shop which seemed to beckon me in with its frosty promise.

It was a barbers.

I paused to look at myself in the reflection of an empty bakery next door. My sweaty, knotted hair hadn’t been cut in a couple of months and my ginger speckled beard was starting to look a little unprofessional for a teacher. In fact, the harder I looked the more I appeared to look like a weary Jamie Oliver on the wrong side of a hostage ordeal.

On impulse, I strolled over to the barbers and began rummaging around in my bag for my tablet in preparation for the inevitable translation issues. It wasn’t there, It was back in my room sulking after its temporal tantrum. I would just have to wing it, no other option.

‘Salam-alaikum!’, I said, using up approximately 10% of my Arabic language skills in one fell swoop. My cheery wave was returned by a portly, middle-aged man with a tight perm and a garish shirt. He looked like the token foreigner from a bawdy 70’s sitcom. I should have brought my retro Kindle along I thought, they would have gotten on famously. I immediately christened the man ‘Donny’ in my head.

He pointed to a seat, sat me down and started fussing around me. First, he turned my collar inside out and tucking it into my shirt. Then he wrapped a sort of white gauze tightly around my neck before chucking a black apron around me and folding the gauze down over it. It looked the world like I’d involuntarily taken the cloth. It was an unsettling image.

After this little warm up act, the barber stood behind me, laid his hands upon my shoulders and then said something in Arabic.

I apologised for not speaking Arabic and made a few ‘scissor’ motions around my head and face to try and explain what I wanted to happen. The shaving gesture was easy and we soon understood each other (‘Mouss!’) but ‘a general tidy-up on top’ was much harder to convey. I pulled my hair a little and made a cutting gesture.

Donny blinked a couple of times and half-heartedly repeated my actions with his fingers.

I tried ‘schweir’ (little) but then panicked that he’d only leave a little hair left. I settled for ‘nusf’ (half) which seemed to work (either that or he just got bored of watching me point fruitlessly at my head).

He slid a little headrest up from somewhere and pushed my head back on it and then began to drop little splashes of something onto the cleft of my chin. It smelt strongly like cleaning alcohol. After a few more careful daubs, he forced the headrest forward so I ended up staring at my own crotch. Then Donny left.

I was left in that rather uncomfortable position for quite a while. Occasionally, Donny would wander past, use his finger to scoop up some of the liquid that was now pooling around my navel and returning it to my chin. This continued for a solid 15 minutes.

Soon I was getting very stiff and my feet were beginning to tingle disconcertingly. I stretched my neck back, only to be swiftly grabbed by Donny and the solution wiped from my chin. It dawned on me I was probably meant to sit back earlier. No wonder he looked a bit impatient. It’s a ritual I’ve never experienced before or since.

Anyway, no sooner had blood started venturing to my extremities again, Donny had forced my head forward and I helplessly began to inspect my crotch all over again. I heard the clippers buzz into life. A short ‘whirr’ later and two things strike me.

1) A distressingly large clump of my hair tumbling to the floor.

2) A sharp pain where I’m pretty certain I used to have a protruding mole.

Metaphorically touching the cloth I unexpectedly received earlier, I tried to mumble my discord but Donny carried on like a man possessed, ignoring my feeble protestations. A minute later, I’m dragged upright to witness a very proud Donny showcasing his handiwork.

It’s short, very short. But the thing that immediately draws my attention is that – for no clear reason – I now have a 2 inch curly fringe slathered across my forehead.

Donny smiles at me encouragingly.

‘Uh… cut?’, I finger-scissor my baffling wall of forehead hair.

‘La, la quase! (No, no, it’s fine!)’, protests Donny.

I make some more adamant cutting gestures.

‘La!’

‘Arjouk (please) Donny? Arjouk?’, I beg.

With a pained look, he eventually lops off my fringe, muttering disconsolately as he does so. I notice later he left a wee tuft as a tribute to his lost art.

The shave is less harrowing. Well, save for the one occasion he began arguing with a customer who came in. As their discussion got louder, Donny absent-mindedly started pressing a cut-throat razor firmly into my neck and possibly would’ve drawn blood/decapitated me if it wasn’t for an urgent, nervous cough. Oh and the fact we started the whole process by both saying ‘Bismillah’ (please God) at Donny’s request. That was a little worrying too.

As he scraped the last ginger scrap away with one hand, he pulled the robe clear with the other rather flamboyantly, making me spin around in the chair involuntarily. The gauze caught and choked me a tad. As the paper collar came loose and flittered to the floor, I couldn’t help but notice quite a lot of blood and went to touch the spot where my mole sits (sat). Before I could do so, Donny had grabbed me and splashed firey, liquid death across my face. I have no idea what it was but by Christ, it had a kick.

After paying a princely 4 quid to Donny and promising to come back if my hair recovered, I stumbled out and weaved my way home. My housemate screamed a little when she saw the little trickle of blood down my neck. She rushed me into the bathroom and doused my wound in something equally painful.

I spent the rest of the night trying to scrub off my dried blood by candlelight. The next day my colleague remarks that I should’ve kept the fringe.

The start of my Libyan adventure

This year (2014) I moved to Africa to teach English in Libya’s capital city, Tripoli. I lasted about three months before the country descended into (further) chaos and the British government suggested that I possibly might like to evacuate.  During my time there, I wrote a few stories and kept a little Facebook blog of what I was doing.  Over the next few weeks I’ll transfer over a few bits and pieces – old and new – onto ajsadventureblog.

This was my very first post on Libyan soil – thanks for reading.

Things I’ve done so far in Africa:

1) Got lost at the very first possible opportunity.
2) Appraised a patio.
3) Offended approximately 75% of people I’ve met by consistently pronouncing their name wrong.
4) Been sprayed with aftershave by a concerned bystander.
5) Picked up a live bullet (and placed it on my dresser).
6) Moved in with 2 women (more to follow).
7) Almost died in at least 14 times in road traffic accidents.
8) Made a friend who has lived in Llanelli for several years.
9) Witnessed 2 spectacular sunsets.
10) Relentlessly brought up Gaddaffi against all sage advice

So far so good.