On making Muslim outsiders, insiders

My wife and I became the subject of a heated debate while visiting a mosque in malawi with a missing wall.

My parents liked poetry. Somewhere along the way, I also learned to like humorous poetry. I have to look up Longfellow's lines from "Hiawatha," written in 1855:

He had mittens, Minjekahwun,
Magic mittens made of deerskin;
When upon his hands he wore them,
He could smite the rocks asunder,
He could grind them into powder.

But I remember without looking it up the Rev. George Strong's 1889 parody:

When he turned them outside inside,
Then the warm side, fur-side, in was,
And the cold side, skin-side, out was
When he turned them inside outside.

I admit that I did have to look up the author and date. But the distinction between inside and outside remains a constant wonder to me, perhaps especially when it is least clear, or most in need of remedy.

My wife and I became the subjects of an inside-outside debate in 1996. We were in the Southern African nation of Malawi, visiting a cousin working there. Sightseeing one Friday in the city of Zomba, we heard a noise that we didn't recognize. We looked around and discovered that we were outside a mosque, hearing the call to prayer. My wife suggested that we learn more about it. Not sure of the etiquette, we stepped to the front door and waited, looking bewildered, until a man stepped up and offered to show us around.

He realized that we were not Muslims, and I wouldn't want to be lined up prostrating myself among the Muslim worshipers. "Normally, we put visitors and women in a separate room," he said, "where they can watch through a window or screen. But we are remodeling, enlarging, and they've taken down the wall that had the screen to watch through."

He pointed at a discolored line on the floor. "Here you can see where the wall was taken down. I'm not sure where the new wall will be, but that line marks the old wall. I'll just find two chairs, and if you sit on the other side of that line, you'll be where the old room was."

We sat there through the prayers, with no apparent notice being taken by the worshipers. But as soon as the prayers concluded, several men came over. Our host stepped up, and they asked him "What are they doing here? There shouldn't be a woman in here."

He replied, "Well, that line marked the edge of the room, and we haven't got a new wall yet, so I supposed that it marked a separate room."

About six men became involved in a rather heated discussion as to whether or not we were, in fact, inside the prayer room, or outside. Even the men who most strenuously maintained we had been in the wrong place assured us that we were not at fault, that they merely differed on how to interpret the rule. As sources were quoted and arguments were made, they happily explained the arguments on each side to us.

Suddenly, I realized that I'd been in remarkably similar situations before: The tone of voice used and the kinds of arguments being made were exactly those of a friendly disagreement on a fine point of Jewish law in a relatively liberal orthodox synagogue.

Throughout the rest of our stay in Zomba, we were greeted happily on the street by people who remembered us as the tourists from the mosque, the ones who had sparked the interesting discussion. This allowed us to ask questions about Islam and daily life in Malawi, questions we would not have had an opportunity to ask otherwise. We were, in fact, no longer seen as outsiders.

I've been encouraging friends recently to find the time to visit their nearest mosque, or ask their church or synagogue to arrange an exchange of visits for a group. While you can't just slide into a mosque and remain inconspicuous, members of the mosque are delighted to have visitors and often have social hours or other functions.

Many American Muslims are feeling very much like outsiders right now. In recent weeks, some have been as fearful as the Jews must have been in Germany at the start of the 1930s. It is very much in everyone's interest for Muslims to become and remain insiders, participants, who feel part of and secure in American life.

I'm not a poet, but I do sometimes wish I had magic mittens:

For to smite the walls asunder,
For to grind them into powder,
We can make the cold side, warm side
We can bring the outside, inside.

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