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. Continue reading