By Rachel Pieh Jones
I drove my twins to a play date and we passed Djibouti’s Dry Port where dozens of trucks waited to head to Ethiopia. Port workers and truckers lined up inside a rectangular space blocked off from the desert by small white-washed stones along the perimeter. Some had scraps of cardboard at their feet, a few had colorful prayer rugs. All men, shoulders touching, they faced the same direction—Mecca. A few stragglers finished swiping palms full of water over their faces, blew their noses in the dirt, and joined the line. In near unison they began the salat, the Islamic prayer.
The twins were six, maybe seven years old at the time. Their exact age eludes me but the conversation is forever etched in my memory. They had lived in Muslim countries over half their lives. Our neighbors, with whom we shared a duplex, often prayed in the front yard. Sometimes Daddy joined them, with his own non-Muslim words. My language tutors, women, prayed in the house. They washed inside too, in the bathroom sink and left puddles on the floor, damp circles on their dresses. Sometimes I prayed with them, with my own words.
So this drive was not the first time Henry and Maggie had seen Muslims praying. Maggie watched, her nose pressed to the window, as I drove around the roundabout, the one by the fish port, the one with rusting and dust-covered blue dolphins.
“Mommy,” she said, ” why do Muslims take a bath and do a dance when they pray?”
Thankfully before my laugh bubbled over, I sensed the sincerity in her question and choked it back.
“Good question,” I said. “Why do you think?”
She wondered if maybe they were dusty from the Djiboutian desert. Henry thought maybe they were sweating and stinky from their hard labor at the port. One of them suggested they needed exercise.
“But what are they doing?” I asked.
“Who do people talk to when they pray?”
I explained that Muslims believe God is holy, that out of their deep reverence for his perfection they didn’t want to barge into prayer with the things of the world on their body, sort of like meeting the president with gum in your hair.
I asked them how we prayed. Henry knelt with me when he couldn’t sleep. When we were in America at church, people taught their kids to fold their hands, close their eyes, bow their heads. Around mealtimes in our house we kept our eyes open and held our hands out, palms up, we looked at each other.
“Sometimes you pray when you drive,” Henry said.
In Djibouti I prayed the entire time I was driving, for miraculous safety as I dodged donkey carts and wild buses and goat herds and massive Ethiopian lorries. Sometimes my prayers were simply, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” followed by little screams while I clutched the steering wheel.
“So prayer can look like a lot of things,” I said.
I told them that I liked the Islamic custom of bowing, standing, bowing again, kneeling, touching the forehead to the ground because of how it physically embodied the conviction that God is greater.
“Like the song they sing before they start,” Maggie said.
When we first heard the call to prayer, the adhan, in Somalia a few years ago the kids had asked what the sound was. Our neighborhood imam sang “Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar!” Muslims didn’t sing along, but responded to the call by coming to pray. I had translated the words and suggested the kids sing along, God is great! God is great!
I started to say more about Islam and prayer and how I saw the washing as symbolic of the need for spiritual cleansing, for forgiveness, but one of them picked a fight and the other asked about orange construction cranes. They’d had as much serious as they could handle for the short drive. But I still think about that conversation when friends pray in my house, when I jog past groups of men lined up facing Mecca.
As a non-Muslim I observed and occasionally participated in the salat as structure, as tradition, as worship even. But Maggie saw the dancing, the joy in it.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.
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