The Mosque Turns Fifty

By far the most elegant structure on Christmas Island is the mosque. I come across it while running, shortly before sunset on a Sunday afternoon. It is time for me to recite Mincha, the afternoon service. I descend to the shore and gaze out to sea. Empty for now of smugglers and pursuers, the sea is a wide place of peace.

While reciting the silent devotion I can hear the unmistakeable sung sound of the call to prayer. There in front of me is the sapphire sea; behind me the towering slope; and in my ears the voice of the muezzin: I might be in Haifa.

I find myself musing on that word, muezzin. How homophonous with the Hebrew ma’azin, ‘to make hear’, to announce.

I complete my prayer. It shall be on that day, that the Lord shall be one, and His name one.

I jog over to the mosque. Its gold minaret rises from creamy walls to catch the setting sun. The green slope beyond darkens toward blackness. A great quiet falls upon the world. I walk towards the mosque’s open door and count shoes at the threshold: there are ten. How many is a quorum, I wonder?

Outside, on the grass, a plaque of stainless steel bearing the Australian coat of arms announces the assistance of the Federal Government of Australia in the construction of the mosque. I read the date: fifty years ago. The plaque is fixed to a mount by iron bolts that have rusted. The emu and the kangaroo gaze at each other across a widening stain of brown that flows down across the plaque.

My imagination begins to work. I’ve seen no-one on the island wearing Islamic dress. I have seen the slender, sinuous forms of young Malay women jogging in skimpy western tops. How many Muslims live on the island? How many of them live their faith? How does a remnant faith survive here, cut off from the root in Malaysia and Singapore?

Over the following week, some answers filter to me. It turns out that this coming Wednesday the community will mark the mosque’s fiftieth birthday. The federal Department of Immigration and Citizenship is paying for the airfares of a couple of clerics from the Islamic community in Perth. All citizens of Malay descent are invited, numerous non-Malay dignitaries are invited. Hundreds will attend this by-invitation only event. Remarkably enough, Doctor Howard Goldenberg has not been invited.

On Wednesday morning I approach the boss of the Health Team: “Have you heard about the mosque’s fiftieth birthday party this morning?”

She has.

“I think a member of the Health Team ought to attend. As a token of respect. An invitation should be obtained for one of us to go. I am willing to attend – to represent Health.”

The boss is silent. She gazes stonily at me, her face saying, “Get real, Howard. It’s a work morning. Go and do your work.”

The Islamic community marks its milestone without the presence of the stickybeak from Health. I wonder whether I might have inflated the importance of Islam in the lives of the islanders. Within the men’s compound there is a second mosque, little patronized by the detained persons. Grotesquely, the chaplain for all these Muslims is a Greek Orthodox priest.

I go to my work and I meet a man in distress. He suffers shame in simply describing his plight. I cannot control my bladder, Doctor. I wet myself, like my small baby son. I cannot pray when I am defiled, I cannot go into the mosque; I have to shower five times every day.

I prescribe tablets to strengthen his bladder. These same tablets were of no help to my mother following her strokes. I am not confident they will help the man who wishes to pray. 

On Friday the boss informs us that the Islamic community is hosting a celebration for the entire community over both days of the weekend. All are invited.

Saturday – Shabbat – is like every day in winter here, warm and sunny, about twenty-seven humid degrees. I descend the five steep kilometres from Silver City to the Malay Kampong. Numerous large oblong marquees shade the hundreds of guests.

All guests are modestly clad, no ankles are seen, no arms bared, no cleavage exhibited. It’s all quite out of our time, a bit like a Hassidic Barmitzvah. The Muslims in the crowd wear loose flowing satin tops and trousers in a rainbow of pastel shades. The males wear an additional garment, a sort of short skirt in Malay patterning; and crocheted white skullcaps or geometrically decorated cylindrical hatlets.

A day of dignity and quiet pride.

There are lots of non-Muslims, all thoroughly covered, obviously very much at home in the company of their hosts.

While an orator is orating, sylphs in long satin dresses walk among us, bearing large jugs full of a red drink and chunks of ice. These young girls and women wear uniform head gear-cum-scapular that covers the hair and bodice, and encircles the face, leaving it fully revealed. Young faces smile with sweet gravity.

A jugbearer approaches, bends, whispers: “Would you like a drink, sir?”

The heavy jug sweats in her slender hands.

“What is it?”

“Syrup.”

Syrup. The language is England, 1960’s, the era of the birth of the mosque.

I whisper my thanks. The orator introduces a visiting cleric from Perth who will address the community. The guest, a slim man aged about forty, looks taller than his true height beneath his patterned cylindrical cap. This is the hat that my generation first saw in photos of “Bung” Karno, Brother Soekarno, Indonesian dictator and murderer, in those same ‘sixties.

The cleric is an elegant figure, a personage. He delivers an address in Arabic that might be a sermon: Allah is named in every sentence. I listen closely for words like Jihad but they are not heard.

Unlike many preachers I’ve heard, the speaker holds his audience through his lengthy address. His voice rises and falls, now emphatic, now softer. His delivery accelerates and slows, he pauses and gestures, his bearing modest – I am honoured to be among you as your guest – his mastery complete. I search the faces in the crowd. They are intent rather than ecstatic. The speaker speaks not to the passions but to minds and souls.

It’s a long speech but no-one tires, not the crowd, not this outsider, not the speaker. His fluency is remarkable; he does it all without notes.

He comes to an end, compresses his palms together before his breast, bows slightly and withdraws.

No applause. The crowd responds with formal sobriety.

While a group of heavily robed women makes its way to a stage, people rise and stretch and move around. The robed ladies, aged in their forties and fifties, are clad in maroon and black – just the colours to best retain heat. To a traditional drum and a modern keyboard, the good ladies do a lot of harm to a long song in Arabic. I am reminded of the music critic who wrote: Last evening, an amateur string quartet played Brahms. Brahms lost.

All is not lost, however. One chorister, younger than the rest, stands before the microphone. She lifts up her voice and sings. The sound rises, strong and sure, higher and higher, melody-true, a clarion. Desultory conversation that had broken out now fails. All ears belong to the soloist. Her song rises and rises as we listen and watch. The sound climbs the steep mountainside behind her, she flings it to the heavens and lifts us with her, and we join the frigate birds and boobies that circle in their endless hunt for food.

The music ends and Halal food is offered to all guests. I climb the hill and walk home to my Shabbat meal.

On the Monday, I review the man who wets his pants. He is beaming. You have worked a miracle, Doctor. With your medicine I am clean, dry. I am not shamed and I can pray.

Late on my final morning on the island, I return to the Kampong. I approach the mosque and peer inside. Two members of the Malay community intercept me. One challenges me: “What are you doing here?”

“I’d like to see the mosque. Is it alright for me to stand here?”

“No!”

This response doesn’t trouble me. My interceptors are too young for kindergarten.They remount their little scooters and scoot away.

A man crosses the lawn in the direction of the mosque, wearing a knee-length robe in beige, a sort of kaftan. Beneath this he wears harem pants in the same material. He has an ample tummy, a small beard and a small smile of curiosity.

He asks: “Can I help you?”

“I hope so. I am a visitor to the island. I’ve been working here for a short time. I’d like to speak to a member of the mosque about the congregation.”

“You are welcome”, he says, “Please come inside. What work do you do?”

I tell him.

He turns and limps away to wash his hands and his face. He returns and waves me into the vestibule, a large, open cool area with white floor tiles. “I am visiting too. I used to live here, now I have come from Singapore to be with my brothers. I have been here a week, eating the good food, Doctor. Now I have gout.”

He invites me to enter the inner chamber where prayers are about to begin. I hold back. Unsure of mosque protocol, I want to avoid error and offense.

As he limps away to pray, he adds: “We have a  service now. It is quite short. If you can wait, we will be glad to speak with you.”

I watch and listen as a small flurry of latecomers breaches the threshold. It is just past noon.

Sober, slowly articulated, the prayers in Arabic are punctuated by bowing and prostration. Most worshippers wear traditional garb. One wears the khaki of an Aussie tradesman. Unlike synagogue services, there is no social chitchat. The worshippers speak only to God.

Soon it is over and my host returns. He introduces me to a younger man in a kaftan of smart grey. He is the youngest brother, here from Perth for the family reunion. We shake hands.

I meet the entire congregation of eight people, one an older man in a wheelchair, dignified in his traditional dress. He looks familiar: I saw him wheeled up onto the stage last Shabbat, an elder to be acknowledged by the community. His face is skew-whiff. I ask him whether he’s suffered a stroke. “No, not a stroke” – he melts all sobriety with the wide smile that angles across his face – “My knees don’t work. One is artificial, one is real. Both no good. But, hamdalalillah, no stroke.”

The tradie in khaki joins us. He is the middle  brother of the three, aged about fifty. His broad brown face rises to a wide brow over which wisps of curly black hair hang like a frayed curtain. He looks like the recipient of a botched hair transplant.

He listens as his brothers speak. They explain that all three of them grew up here; their family has been here for generations; and that two of them left here to marry, each of them about fifteen years ago.

I ask: “Has it been difficult for you to be Muslims here, a minority cut off from the big centres of your faith?”

The reply, unexpected, comes from the middle brother: “No difficulty. September eleven happened, people asked us what we think. ‘It’s not us. We are Australians, we are Muslims. We have nothing to do with that.’”

I am taken by the younger brother’s smart patterned hat: “Where on the island can I buy a hat like that one?”

“Singapore”. He smiles. “But you don’t need to buy one. Here, it is yours.”

He removes his hat and hands it to me. I look admiringly at the rich chocolate brown and the white lines that criss-cross it. I remove my own hat, exposing my kippah. I hand him the kippah. “Will you accept this in return?”

We each try on the other’s religious headgear, both of us beaming.

The khaki brother now speaks, his face serious: “Do you know why this place is unique?”

I don’t know what sort of answer he has in mind. I shake my head.

He continues: “Where else in the world can a Jew and a Muslim meet in a mosque and exchange prayer hats?”

 

 

 

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 21 August, 2011

 

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