“This road that you found —
It was buried alive in your dreams
With all your second-hand blues.”
– Graceless, The Damnwells
It’s actually pretty remarkable how such an empty space could be so filling inside. When I enter a mosque such as the Masjid Sultan on Arab Street in Singapore pictured above, taken on an impromptu visit last October, I feel enveloped by a sort of warmth and that fuzzy feeling inside, blanketed by His grace. Sometimes I find myself staying five minutes longer than my schedule permits, just to say a final prayer. And when I leave, I leave with a heart as heavy as when one pulls away from a mother’s embrace.
This is a safe house for searching souls like mine. I tend to appreciate it even more when they are hard to find, such as in Cambridge where there’s a church on every street corner, but the mosque happens to be on a street corner far away from where I am. When I am in Malaysia where there is a mosque or prayer room virtually everywhere, I often take them for granted, forgetting that we are actually so privileged to have them so close to us wherever we are.
When I travel, I am constantly thinking about where my next prayer will be and if I will make it in time. Traveling — especially backpacking — is an even more challenging endeavor as a Muslim woman, though certainly not impossible. We have to be particular about the way we dress (the hijab always stays on, even if it’s 45°c outside); we can’t just bunk in a mixed-sex twelve-bed dorm to save money; there isn’t a mosque on every street corner, so we have to get creative; and we always have to think about where our next meal is coming from and be prepared to go veg(etari)an if need be (kudos to my Jewish Airbnb host in Paris who offered me kosher chicken wings after I complained to him about how difficult it was to find a halal eatery in le Marais and its surrounding neighborhoods).
In fact, this is one of the things I appreciate the most about traveling — how it tests us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It challenges us to cross boundaries and step out of our comfort zone, where there is a mosque on every street corner and we never have to ask if the chicken sandwich we’re having for breakfast is halal or not because it’s all been checked by the relevant local religious authorities. It asks us just how much we are willing to keep or compromise for our faith, and if we still have time for God while on the road.
A mosque offers the warmth of a close relative’s living room for the traveler who is so far away from home and all the comfort being close to family offers. I have been a traveler all my life, and alone for much of the time I have spent in Perth, Paris and Cambridge for my studies. In this safe house I could pray unhurriedly and with uninterrupted calmness and have a long tête-à-tête with Him as I pour out my worries, insecurities, deepest fears, hopes and desires known to none other. Some of the strongest friendships I have with friends I intend to keep for life — in this and the next — were forged in a musollah (a smaller version of a mosque, more like a prayer room), while we ate biryani from the same plate as we broke our fast and prayed side by side night after night during Ramadhan. Sometimes when I am working on a piece of writing such as my Honours thesis back in Australia and find my progress hindered by a writer’s block, I’d leave the computer for twenty minutes and head over to the musollah for a short prayer, which always helps me declutter my head and find my way out of my own confused thoughts.
In here I pray, think, cry, feel, hope, strategize; I eat, socialize, meet future best friends and roommates — and perhaps even a husband, as we ladies always joke about. In the presence of the divine, I feel as human as I ever could, for this is where my social and spiritual self seek to connect — both to those around me and to a higher being. I always enter these sacred spaces of worship with a thousand and one worries yet He never sends me away empty-handed. Sometimes without knowing it, I come home from one of these visits with unexpected gifts — an idea for the next chapter of my thesis, a sudden urge to reconnect with old friends and rekindle dying friendships, or just a strange calmness that helps me sleep better that night.
Yes, it is indeed remarkable how such an empty space could be so filling inside.