The immigrant bank teller inhabits corporate speak awkwardly. In place of the expected, “your scarf looks nice” or “I really like your scarf,” she asks if it has religious significance. Her tone is forceful, interested, aggressive, though not hostile, trying to forge the connections her job expects, and that she craves.
Her supervisor approves my ID, searches for connection in trained ways. Her sons attend UMCP, she tells me. They drive, though she wishes they’d take the metro. They drive because they go to mosque in the middle of the day to pray. This is an invitation.
I ask her whether there’s a mosque on campus, accepting her invitation. A prayer area, she responds, though not a mosque. But she tells me where I can find a mosque.
Mosques offer familiarity.
Jamia Mosque in Nairobi is part of my psychic landscape, as are the kanzu-wearing men around it. The call to prayer, the celebration of Ramadan, the sickly-sweet pleasure of dates. My father’s primary clients were Muslim women, and I grew up watching families coming into being and being extended, familiar with the smiles, the shouts, the humility, the braggadocio, the richness and sensibility of Muslims, from Kenya and Somalia and Ethiopia.
While here, I miss the architecture of religious diversity. And, sometimes, the awkward question is the only psychic path to familiar.