In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
I sat alone on the bench outside the women’s praying quarter of the Grand Mosque of Paris. My eyes were filled with tears. None of the more then 200 women in the mosque stood up for me. Not even one. Outside it was raining. I was in Paris in the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks. On that bench I felt very alone. It had been a very long time that I felt as alone as when I was on that bench while watching other women praying tot their God, a God that was not welcoming of an individual like me: a female imam.
How did I end up crying on a bench inside the Grand Mosque de Paris ? After hearing about the Paris attacks, which happened on Friday night - the night I gave my ‘Follow the Yellow brick road’ sermon- my first reaction was disbelief and compassion for the victims. Then a few days later I felt I needed to go to Paris. I needed to go there now, to offer my support, to attend the Friday sermon at the Grand Mosquee de Paris and to give a Moroccan present to the Sacre Coeur. I could not really afford the journey, and I had homework to do and a lot of other things. But something inside me told me that only the big things matter in Life, the rest is just there to make the big things happen. This journey was a big thing; I could not let it go past me. So I stepped into a Blabla-car and headed to Paris.
The journey inside the car was a journey in itself. I was with a French guy who left Paris after the attacks to relax a bit in Holland, and two Dutch girls who had a globetrotter vibe about them and Keiko the dog (who was an exact copy of Toto, the dog from the Wizard of Oz). We talked about veganism, animal rights, Romania (the French guy lived there in his youth because of his ambassador parents), chicken behaviour (one of the girls studied chickens for her job). I learned that in Holland there are 95 chickens on every human inhabitant in Holland. 45 of those chickens are egg-laying chicks. That’s a lot. The attack at Bataclan crossed the conversation. The people in the car agreed that we are all humans and all equal and that attacks here in Europe are not more of a catastrophe then attacks in Syria or Sudan. The group I was in was already of a global thinking generation. This group, is still a minority here in Europe, but I sense it is a growing group of people who think about other people beyond their borders and who care about animals too and try to make the world a little bit better by saving on gasoline and money by doing Blabla-car journey’s and by doing jobs that could make animal and human life a little better in the future.
When I arrived in Paris the French guy gave me a free ticket to Paris-city. It was rainy and I ran with my suitcase to the metro. I felt gratitude. At night I met with a Jewish-Moroccan friend. She invited me to her home and bought fresh mint tea for me. But first we had some dinner in a new café whose owner was a beautiful lady, a North African Jewish lady. The atmosphere of the café was homey and the dishes were a mix of Arab and French. Hummus, olive-tapas, French bread, French potato-salad, baked calamari’s etc. It was a cosy place that looked like any modern day family living room, with couches, a family dinner table, and visitors who acted as if they were family. My friend paid for everything. A beautiful, intelligent warm and generous woman whom I had the honour to meet. She also shared generously of her life’s wisdom with me. Thank you sister, you know who you are. As if all the generosity was not enough she also worried about me going alone back to the hotel, so she called a cab, which she also paid. Outside on our way to the taxi, we saw a traffic jam which seemed to be cause by an African truck driver. A lot of people were angry with him, but my friend came to his defence. “He is a hero, he prevented an accident by stopping here, and now everybody is cursing on him for doing this’’. She yelled at the people outside and they seemed to listen to her, because the calling had stopped immediately.
IT LOOKED LIKE A STARK WHITE ANGEL SURROUNDED BY A DARK STARLESS NIGHT
My taxi arrived: a handsome young Moroccan guy, originally from Marrakesh. I hugged my friend and entered the taxi. I started talking with the taxi driver and mentioned that I was a female imam. He was surprised and curiously asked me what I thought of the hijab. I told him that I believe it depends on the interpretation and that a woman is free to dress as she likes and that the value behind the hijab is to not commit ‘zina’ (extra-marital sex). He agreed and told me that he is a virgin himself and is saving himself for his Indian fiancée. She converted from Christianity, but doesn’t want to wear a veil. He respected her choice, but preferred her to wear one, because his family was quite traditional and had trouble accepting him choosing an Indian girl as a wife. I told him that Islam is not about veils or nationalities or race. His parents must accept his choice if they are true Muslims. Suddenly the taxi stopped, not because we arrived, but because a Chinese looking couple was making a selfie in the middle of the road. I discovered the reason why: on the left there was the gigantic Sacre Coeur on the top of the mountain. It looked like a stark white angel surrounded by a dark starless night.
GET A JOB OR GET LOST
The next day I went to the Friday sermon of the Grand Mosquee de Paris. On the road inside the metro I saw Muslims on the ground begging to passers-by. I felt irritation. Why are we Muslims begging in the metro’s ? Charity is important in Islam, but this was ridiculous. Islam was about working not about begging. The mosque has a responsibility to help these people: get a job and get lost.
Anas ibn Malik reported: A man from the Ansar came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and begged from him. The Prophet said, “Have you nothing in your house?” The man said, “Yes, a piece of cloth, a part of which we wear and a part of which we spread on the ground, and a wooden bowl from which we drink water.” The Prophet said, “Bring them to me.” The man brought these articles to him and the Prophet took them in his hands and he said, “Who will buy these?” Someone said, “I will buy them for one coin.” The Prophet said twice or thrice, “Who will offer more than one coin?” Someone said, “I will buy them for two coins.” He sold them for two coins and the Prophet said, “Buy food with one of them and give it to your family. Buy an axe and bring it to me.” The man brought it to him. The Prophet fixed a handle on it with his own hands and he said, “Go gather firewood and sell it, and do not let me see you for a fortnight.” The man went away and gathered firewood and sold it. When he had earned ten coins, he came and bought a garment and food. The Prophet said, “This is better for you than for begging to come as a spot on your face on the Day of Resurrection. Begging is correct only for three people: one in severe poverty, one in severe debt, and one who must pay a difficult compensation.”
I FELT HUMILIATED AND NOT RESPECTED AT ALL; THIS IS HOW THEY TREAT FEMALE IMAMS
I arrived at my destination, on the road outside I saw some more beggars on the public road, leading me to the mosque. Heavy security surrounded the prayer house. Men carrying rifle guns were everywhere. They checked all the visitors one by one. At the door of the mosque a Muslim man dressed in traditional West African clothes asked if I had a camera with me. I said I had an iPad, which has a camera. That was ok as long as I didn’t make any recordings with it. I entered and went downstairs to the women’s quarter. A lady with a green hijab told me I could not enter, because she decided that I was not a Muslim, but a journalist. I asked her to move and let me in, I am a Muslim ! Then other women came to us. One said I could enter only if I put on a hijab, it was for security reasons, she said. I didn’t understand it. How can a hijab prevent an attack ? The last time I checked a hijab was not a security vest. They asked me who I was and what I was looking for. “I am a female Imam and I have come to Paris to pray in the Grand Mosque to support the people of Paris”, I said. A sadistical smile came from the unveiled young woman with the yellow security vest. “Women cannot be an imam,” she sarcastically replied. I expected a more feminist worldview from this seemingly modern young woman without a veil, with blonded hair and tight jeans. They were getting impatient. I said that I came all the way from Holland to pray in this mosque today and that they cannot stop me from praying in Allah’s house. I went in the direction of the prayer room. They threatened me with calling security. I dismissed everything and took off my shoes to enter the prayer room. When I was almost inside the woman with a veil told me I could get inside, but only if I prayed at the entrance where she could keep an eye on me. I did as she said. But the moment I sat there the women behind me started to complain about me not having a hijab. The lady of the security responded directly and ordered me to get out. I didn’t want to make a scene so I obeyed her order, knowing that I have all the right to sit here without a veil. Outside an Arab guy from the security told me he was not religious and was here to check that everything was safe. I explained to him that I was a female imam and came here to pray but was not let in. He responded with silence and said nothing. Like hyenas around their prey the women all talked loudly and angrily to me and said that I needed to respect Islamic tradition. I asked them to give me one valid arguments that prove the statement. They refused. A hijab feminist intellectual entered the conversation and said that she understood the point I was making, but she said nothing more and left the group to attend the prayers. The atheist Arab guard was silent too and seemed to choose the side of the majority. I sat alone on the bench outside and tears fell over my cheeks. I felt humiliated and not respected at all; this is how they treat female imams.
THE GIRL WITH THE BURKA STARTED TO TUCK MY HAIR INSIDE MY COAT
When the sermon ended an old Berber lady signalled me to enter. I could pray now with my headscarf on. I sat next to a young girl in Burka who offered me a glass of water. I hesitated and the thought of being poisoned crossed my mind, I drank it anyway. My trust was in Allah. What will be will be. The girl in the Burka started to tuck my hair inside my coat; I had some hair showing. I let her do what she wanted, she meant well, I thought to myself and gave her a hug. After the prayer I hugged the sisters next to me as well and prayed for the People of Paris. I also hugged the old Algerian Berber lady who called me in. Emotioned by this all she declared that from now on I am welcome to enter the Mosque as I am, with hat or without, I was welcome. At this moment I saw my mum in her. She let compassion go before traditions (are they really traditions ? or is it just biased superstition ?). Outside I talked to a hyjabi lady who put her shoes on next to me on the bench. I told her I visited Paris as a gueardian and representative of the marabout of Sidi Yahiya, the patron saint of Oujda in Morocco. She replied that she didn’t know him. I asked her her nationality. “Je suis Francaise” , she responded. “Ah that’s why you didn’t know him”, I replied. With a grim face she said that she was Muslim and there are no saints in Islam. End of story. She left. I asked the others if they knew him. Surprisingly the whole group were French natives. None of them knew the saint and all put him down as not being Islamic. Sidi Yahiya is the biggest Patron Saint of the Rif of Morocco, and the sanctuary had been part of my ancestors’ faith for centuries. I cannot see the Sufism, the spirituality, the music, the yearly moussems at this shrine as something unislamic. Sufism is heavily part of Moroccan Islam. Without the Sufism there would be no Islam in Morocco, not the heart of it anyway.
THE IMAM IS TOO BUSY
A beautifully dressed lady from Mali came to sit next to me and started putting on her golden glittering sports shoes. Her head was covered with a white translucent veil with golden embroidery. I asked her if I could visit the imam. She gave me instructions. I also asked her about the attack and how she experienced it. She responded that the terror was everywhere; in Mali they had an attack as well. She greeted me and left. I went outside in the rain and met some begging older ladies who were furious about the mosque-ladies not letting me in. They were silent then, but now they had the courage to speak up. I thanked them for their support and headed to the men’s entrance. A beautiful garden winked at me. I bumped with the atheist Arab security guard again and asked him about the imam. He looked irritated and said that I just need to stop rebelling and accept the Islamic traditions as they are. Funny how all of the sudden now he knew what were Islamic traditions. I thought he was an atheist? Another man came to me and said that I am a journalist and must leave. I responded by asking him how he knew I was a journalist ? I am a Muslim and I want to speak to the Imam. A beardless, intellectually looking older man in suit approached me. He seemed to be from the mosques’ board of directors. He made the remark that it is obligatory to put on a hijab upon entering the mosque and that I need to go home. On my question about meeting the imam he responded that the imam is busy and cannot talk to me. I saw that the conversation was heading nowhere. So I left them. In the corner of the garden I saw a nicer looking old man who had the features of my grandfather. In a leap of faith I asked him about the imam. “Bien sur”, of course, he said, and signalled an older lady to bring me to the imam. She led me through the rose garden, the court of the fountain, the library and there I was, I could just knock on the door and meet the imam. The leader of the pack of female hyenas walked by and looked at me with a surprised face, as if she caught me stealing in her shop. She murmured in Algerian Berber to the lady who helped me out, and disappeared.
THE IMAM OFFERED ME A GATEAU
I knocked on his door. "Finally I will meet the imam who brainwashed these idiots'', I thought. When I opened the door I saw a young man with a small beard. I had this dejavu kind of feeling as if I saw the wizard of Oz before me. Here was the man who ruled the Grand Mosque of Paris. Here was the man behind all the trials I’ve experienced. But he was very different from what I had expected. He was dressed in white and his eyes were calm, friendly and intelligent. He offered me a gateau, a chocolate filled round shaped cake. I thanked him and told him the whole story from beginning to the end. He listened attentively. When I finished with everything he responded that I was right and that I shouldn’t mind ignorant people. “Just go inside as you are. Don’t mind them.” I was in shock. All those people were against me, hundreds of people, who readily would have put me on the stake if they lived in the Middle Ages, and all of that was just ignorance ? “Yes. They don’t know about Islam and force their ignorance on others.” “But they were with hundreds and a lot of them worked for the mosque”, I responded. “They do not work for the mosque. They are just visitors who pretend they work for us. Anyone can volunteer.” I was bedazzled. I expected this bad imam to fight against, but the truth was none of that. He was my age, courteous, gentle and very curious about my mission as a female Imam. I showed him my website and he found it very interesting. He offered to meet me the day after in the mosque’s teahouse. What followed was a very open and deep conversation about our private lives and the Muslim world in general. He looked tired and had sms messages all the time. People needed him 24h a day. Being an imam looked like a big burden for a young man like him. He took it with grace. We talked about everything. Marriage, Bataclan, the Arab world, female circumcision, the Muslim beggars on the street, Tariq Ramadan etc. He was critical of Tariq Ramadan. “What Ramadan is doing is political Islam, just like the Moslem Brotherhood and the Wahhabis.” I was surprised by his poignant knowledge. Most Muslims are happy with Ramadan and don’t look any further on his agenda. I told him he needs to get on TV and in the press. His voice should be heard, not people like Ramadan who make a lot of money and spread a dubious agenda. “Why don’t you do it”, he responded. “You are very well versed in speech." I was humbled, that he really saw me as someone who is not only an equal imam, but as someone who could talk better to the press then him. He said that his work demands a lot of patience. The Muslim community is not as advanced as the western one. We had centuries of colonialism, wars, dictators etc. Our intellectuals are just coming up. We need to work slowly but steadily if we want to keep the majority with us.” He’s a French born Algerian who took extensive studies to become an imam. Very few of his generation get to this level. His task is Herculean. He needs to fill a gap of a thousand years and he tries to do this by giving lectures and courses to his congregation. He has an almost impossible position between the old fashioned members of the board and the majority of traditionalist Muslims who have their minds set and are difficult to change. It was also his job, he had to make a living out of it, so he had to be careful even if the knowledge he has is enlightened, he cannot bring it directly into the faces of his congregation, he could blind them with it. He also responded on my complaint about the many Muslims begging on the road to the mosque. "Why aren’t they helped to get a job ?" I asked. “These beggars are Romanian and not Muslims. They dress like Muslims with the idea that Muslims could give them extra money if they look Islamic.” I was perplexed. And what about the elderly Muslim ladies who were begging outside the mosque ? “We tried to help them, but they don’t want to be helped. One lady didn’t come one day and I asked her where she was. She lives in the neighbourhood, but responded that her taxi driver could not come. She pays him 25 Euros to bring her to the spot. So she must at least earn the double of that amount in one day. This is more then what most most workers earn. So it is a lucrative business. We tried to help/ remove them, but they keep on returning back. It’s just busininess.”
I stepped into his car to go to the Arab photographers Biennale. While driving he texted his answers to urgent questions from his congregation. Not a safe job, imamhood. I saw that my background as an ‘artist-imam’ could fill a much needed gap in the imam-community. Islam and art should go together, and strengthen the Renaissance ideology of a complete spiritual human being. We saw photos of artist’ interpretations of mosques, of women diving in the Nile to address harassment of women and many other social issues that are related to our common Muslim world. I exchanged numbers with the imam. We agreed that the next time he will come to Holland he will be my guest, the Imam of la Grand Mosque de Paris.