There is much left to be said about Serbia, but I wanted to write this now before I lose my impressions. I visited the Mustafa a Mosque in Skopje, Macedonia, on Friday, and after looking around began to take some notes before I continued. It was around that time that services began, and so I stayed and wrote about what I saw. Below is that account, along with a few more thoughts I didn’t get down that day.
The loudspeaker crackles to life. All around me there are men washing their arms and feet in the fountain outside the mosque. They are cleaning themselves in preparation for worship, so that they may approach this holy place and pray with a ritually cleansed body. One by one, some merely shoeless and some barefoot, they walk across the colourful, woven mats that have just been laid out and lead from the stone walkway in front of the fountain to the mosque entrance. A few go inside to worship in the elaborately painted interior, but many remain out in the open, sitting on the mats or lounging on the raised stonework that juts out from the front of the mosque. The wooden shelves that have been constructed for shoes are now almost full.
The imam has begun his lesson, and it his words are carried over the loudspeaker and into the surrounding neighbourhood. It is not Macedonian, but it does not sound like Arabic either. I am informed by the gentleman next to me that it is a reading from an Albanian translation of the Quran. The khutbah, or sermon, is always in Albanian here, but the call to prayer, the adhān, is always in Arabic. I cannot help but be reminded of some of the Catholic services I have attended where there is Latin chanting during the liturgy. What surprises me at this point is the lackadaisical attitude toward the khutbah. The man next to me is discussing something with his friends, and many others appear to be engaged in idle conversation.
More washing, more shoes coming off, more mats going down. Many of the men are now entering the mosque, while a number of others have sat down on the mats, pressing in toward the mosque to seek refuge from the harsh sun in the shade that their holy building provides. If that is not symbolic, I do not know what is. Again, I am struck by the casual approach that most seem to be taking toward the service. It being my first time, I do not know how things typically go, but I expected the kind of devotion and prostration that we are shown on television. This is a religious ceremony, to be sure, but in many ways what I see resembles more of a social gathering. Friends sit chatting, sharing smiles and laughter; a boy lets his legs swing back and forth from the tall step where he is sitting with his father; a few are even smoking, although not those who are close to the mosque. If it were not for the complete absence of women, it would look almost like a social one puts on after church rather than a service itself.
But now another voice is going up, which I assume to be the voice of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer. Albanian is truly a foreign sounding language, with no frame of reference for speakers of Germanic, Slavic or Romance languages, but it is nevertheless Indo-European. Its ancient tones and rhythms are decidedly unusual, but I remind myself that we once shared a history together, although long, long ago. It is when the Arabic begins that I am truly transported. The words and cadence of such a distant tongue clash with the image of Europe inside my mind, calling into question my very geography, and yet this language fits so seamlessly into the environment around me. The scene is now complete.
The imam continues his khutbah, his voice almost drowned out by the muezzin, and all around people are shifting positions, kneeling and resting on the heels of their crossed feet, preparing to pray. ‘Ah, now, is when this part begins,’ I think. The adhān can be heard coming from other places nearby as well, and it must reach all over this part of Skopje. No one will be able to miss it. And yet, I am still waiting for things to begin. Have I missed something? The men next to me continue their discussion in Macedonian; there are others around who are looking off into the sky or fidgeting in place; the imam is still reading from the Quran. Then the voice of the muezzin changes and everyone stands up. All other voices stop immediately. The man next to me takes a second to excuse himself from me and then joins his friends as they move over to the mats and remove their shoes before stepping onto them. The salat, the prayer, has begun.
The men drop a few at a time and bow down low, moving back and forth, and my mind is again drawn to other religious practices I have seen. I sit on a bench beneath the shade of a cypress tree and see Jews davening and Eastern Orthodox Christians bending down to touch their lips and foreheads to their beloved icons. I am struck in this moment by the consistency that exists between these religions. They are different, certainly, and what I am witnessing now is unique and beautiful in its own way, but the commonalities are unmistakable. It truly does all come from the same place, the same tradition, the same desire to please God in the best way we know how. How is it that we can’t recognize that in our daily lives? How is it that we can’t value each other and their contribution to a God, whom we all agree is the same entity?
More men are arriving, bringing their own cushions or prayer rugs and joining the others as another prayer begins. They now bring their hands up and cup them around their ears as the muezzin calls out, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ A period of song-speak or chanting of some kind begins, with a response in the beginning from the worshipers, and now they are engaged in a series of movements. Each time ‘Allahu Akbar’ is heard, they make another movement: bending down, kneeling, bowing, rising again to repeat the ritual prayer. I see that a few men at the back have kept their shoes on, but they also seem careful not to step on the mats or rugs, whereas those who are barefoot or in socks are standing directly on them. Up and down they go, praying and worshiping, and I smile because this is the only aspect of their service that I have seen, and it is only part of it. It would be as if Christians were always portrayed as eating bread and drinking wine. It is part of our worship, but it is not all of it.
And suddenly it is over. With lightning quick movements everyone stands up and hastily puts on their shoes, disbursing this way and that and leaving the mats bare in less than a minute’s time. I am waiting for something else to happen, but everyone is leaving. It is the fastest end to just about anything I have ever seen. A few linger and talk, and some are still to be seen praying near the entrance of the mosque, but for the most part the area has been abandoned. The mats are being rolled up, kind words and smiles are being exchanged, men exit the mosque itself and go on their way. It seems that it is time for me to go on mine as well.
This was truly an experience to remember. I did not understand a single word that was said, aside from ‘Allahu Akbar’, and yet I felt like I had taken part somehow. I had not worshiped with them, but I had seen their dedication and their love, and that was something in itself. I was no closer to being Muslim, but I somehow felt closer to God. Walking away from that mosque and winding back down through the bazaars of Skopje, I knew that I had witnessed a very special thing, even though it was something done every Friday morning. It was special because I was treated with kindness, rather than as a stranger. It was special because I could identify the likenesses along with the differences. It was special because, in the end, I had learned something new about something very old, and I am glad that I can share it with others.