The air in the prayer carries the beautiful scent of musk, its essence renewed by the dabbling of worshippers with the oils on the shelf after almost every ablution. Whenever the sun’s rays penetrate the porthole windows beneath the dome, bathing the burgundy carpet in their yellow-orange glow, the odour lifts and causes friends to smile at one another.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor by the intricately carved screen between her and the rows of men and boys in front, running a string of polished olive wood dhikr beads between her fingers, Omera Abulhawa spies a huddle of boisterous girls enjoying their spare moments before the call to prayer with tales from outside. They are like a rainbow before her: a bright red pashima scarf against a black abaya, a pale pink hijab atop a white tunic and pink satin skirt, a flowing green khimar—Somali style—falling all the way down to the waist, a blue scarf crowning a blue school uniform, an orange dupata against cream salwar kameeze. They are a scattering of all the nations of the earth: Pakistanis, Bengalis, Somalis, Turks, Algerians, Malaysians and the rest. Thirty more multicoloured scarves will join them soon as the girls drift in after school. A couple of adults arrive in smart dark blue suits, their white head scarves pinned asymmetrically above their right shoulders, their silver name badges from work still pinned to the lapels of their jackets; they kneel down close to the Moroccan partition where they are joined by five more friends. ‘Assalamu alaikum,’ they whisper to one another with joyful faces as they shift up to make more room.
At the front of the hall, the imam has arrived and is shaking hands with one of the teachers from the boys’ madrassa. As they exchange a few words he pats the teacher on his back and then he greets one of the boys with a great grin. After a moment he checks his watch, turns to read the prayer timetable fixed to the wall beside the mihrab and, with a nod of his head, beckons the boy to join him. Lifting himself from his knees, Muhammad Khalid—whose clothes looks drab in comparison to the girls’—-wanders towards the microphone at the very front of the hall, raises his hands up to his ears and calls the mosque to prayer. He has the incredible melodious voice of a chorister although he has never been trained.
Almost everybody rises as he finishes, readying themselves for their sunnah prayers, but Omera does not move. Kate has settled on her right, whispering words to her wise companion. ‘I am going to go and see him,’ she says, ‘that’s my decision.’