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Archive for October, 2013

Typical manufactured prayer mat showing the Kaaba

Typical manufactured prayer mat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prayer breaks are a part of daily life in Saudi Arabia. They shape the day. Rather than watching the clock, I find myself checking the prayer schedule online and jotting it down for the upcoming week. Before I arrived, I was aware that Islam required the prayer ritual to be performed 5 times a day. What was surprising to me was that the prayers are not scheduled by the clock, but by the sun and the moon. The times change from week to week, as the seasons change. I can’t memorize the schedule because it is always changing. It is only a few minutes difference each week, but over time, those minutes add up. As the days get shorter, the time between prayer shrinks, as well.

So, what does that look and sound like? My friend, who lives directly across the street from a mosque, is awakened every morning around 4:00am, when the first call to prayer is broadcast over a loudspeaker. If I happen to be walking on the street during the call to prayer (not, however, at 4am), I hear a distinctly middle-eastern chant with rising and falling vibratto. The mournful wail echoes throughout the neighborhood. Men in white thobes, often with sons in tow, hurry toward the mosque.

In the mall, shops and restaurants lock their doors. People scurry around to finish their business before the shops close and the lights are dimmed. People continue eating their meals or walking around, but the benches quickly fill with abaya-clad women, who chat, while keeping an eye on their children at play. Men, all in white, sit in the coffee shops and watch the world go by. Even the fountain in the center of the mall shuts down during prayer. There is a mosque inside the mall, as well as women’s prayer rooms, and many people go to these during prayer time. Islam allows prayer to be performed as soon as possible after the call to prayer, and not everyone chooses to pray at the mall. Many, like me, window shop or sit and rest during the thirty-minute break.

The university where I work has a carpeted prayer room, enclosed in glass. But, not everyone uses it. Some will pray in a corner of an empty classroom. The teachers’ office is overcrowded and noisy with laughter, but I am now accustomed to seeing a teacher put on her abaya and hijab, lay out her prayer rug and pray in the midst of the chaos. I have also observed the female cleaning crew using the prayer room for naps, and I don’t blame them. It’s carpeted and quiet. I’ve learned to schedule breaks around prayer times. Awkward when class begins at 3pm and prayer is at 3:15. But that is life in the kingdom. I am also accustomed to students occasionally reminding me that they are overdue to pray.

The city hums along and continues to function, in spite of the prayer breaks. Hindus from India drive many of the taxis. Catholic Filipinos operate many of the restaurants. Business owners must adhere to the prayer schedule or risk attracting the attention of the religious police. The grocery store can’t really shut down completely, but the cashiers lock their registers and lower the metal security gates. By the time prayer ends, the lines at the registers are six deep. Restaurants allow people to exit, but not enter.

The rhythm of life in Saudi Arabia is slow. The call to prayer ensures it remains that way. I find myself slowing down because of prayer. Type-A personalities struggle with the culture. Things get done, but not right away. Mexico is known for its ‘manana’ (tomorrow) attitude toward life. The Saudi equivalent is ‘in shaa’ allah’ (if God is willing). I don’t hurry out the door to shop if I know it is close to prayer time. I may find myself lingering at a restaurant or just sitting on a bench until prayer is over. I find myself thinking of Daniel, who prayed 3 times each day. Not a bad habit.

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