Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Islam in Ethiopia

After travelling to Lalibela’s rock hewn churches, visiting monasteries by mule and boat, and speaking frequently about Ethiopian Orthodox saints, I thought it was probably a good idea to check out Ethiopia’s other major religion: Islam. I work with Ahmed, a practicing Muslim, and a former employee at the Ethiopian Islamic Council, so I figured he’d be my in. I’ve spent the past nine months trying to remember not to shake his hand! We arranged an appointment on Friday afternoon, before prayers, so that I could visit the Grand Mosque in the heart of Addis’s biggest market (less than a block away from an equally large Orthodox church). Before I left to meet him, I practiced putting on my hijab with the help of another coworker, Saade. As I walked around my office with it on, my coworkers began to call me Amina!

I was early for our appointment, and for the first time in Addis, I felt thoroughly out of place as I waited in front of the men’s gate at the Mosque. Even the little Amharic I’ve gained didn’t apply: the beggars I encountered all wore prayer caps, and the only way I know to fend them off is by saying, “God will provide.” Except that in this case, I would have been talking about the wrong God. I kept on waiting for someone to say, “You don’t belong here,” but of course they didn’t.

When Ahmed arrived, we met the administrator of the Mosque, and he showed us around the women’s part, which made Ahmed very uncomfortable. As we walked around, he commented on my long skirt, saying that I looked like a true Muslim. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the top part of my dress, hidden by a sweater, would have made him change his mind!

At ten minutes before seven we prepared for prayer. I left Ahmed half way, as he went to the men’s part and I headed back towards the woman’s part. As I walked up the stairs, wondering how this was all going to work, two young women in full chador beckoned me over. Placing me between them in our straight prayer line, three rows back from the front, they signaled to me that I should follow their example when the prayer started. And so, we bent forward, kneeled, put our heads to the floor, stood up, crossed our arms, and held out our index fingers in symbol of Allah. When we were finished, the girls asked me my name. When I replied, “Kate,” they said, “No, your Islamic name.” Amina.

I stayed Amina, under my headscarf, all the way home.

1 comment:

zimbloni said...

how did you become amina?