My First Masjid Visit

My intention for starting this blog was to share all of the weird, funny, unique stories and experiences I have accumulated since becoming Muslim. It always me to some degree to have these interactions or conversations or to have found myself in an odd situation, and not really have anyone to share it with. Being a secret revert is such a minority experience and the more time I spent as a Muslim, and the more stories I accumulated, the more I felt like I needed to write them down. It was also important for me to memorialize my experiences because when I was grappling with Islam, and eventually converted, there were so few accounts of other reverts like me that I could read and learn from. Sometimes I really felt like the *only one*, which is incredibly isolating in what was already a lonely experience. I will be the first to point out that I have not undertaken this process by the book; it is full of missteps and questionable choices. I feel a lot of pressure with Islam to be ‘perfect’, on top my already Type-A/perfectionist nature, but I have learned to forgive myself for those missteps and appreciate the beauty of my experience, awkward moments and all.

I used to live in Washington, DC and it was there that I began coming to grips with my religious beliefs. I fasted my first Ramadan there too. At some point, I will write the (long) story of my conversion to Islam, but in short, I had been ‘practicing’ for upwards of a year before I took my shahada. I was trying to learn how to pray and had put together a binder full of notes about surahs, rules, and quotes related to Islam. I was by no means fully committed to Islam, but enough so that if someone had asked what my religion was I would have struggled to answer the question. In DC, I was living a relatively solitary existence. It was not necessary for me to be at the office every day, so I found myself working from my apartment day in and day out. My roommate, who happened to be raised Muslim but was not fully practicing, was often elsewhere during the day, so I was alone most of the time. While I had a few weekly commitments with friends, I needed to find other ways to occupy my time and get outside. I took to taking long walks, upwards of 3 hours, around the city on the weekends. I loved it: there’s something about just walking around a busy city at a leisurely pace, catching details you might not otherwise see during a rushed commute, that helped me find some inner serenity. Many times I would make up a route as I went, turning left or right down streets if I felt like it and seeing where I ended up. It was on one of these endless walks that I found myself adjacent to the Islamic Center of Washington.

The first time I passed it, I wanted to go inside but was not properly dressed – though even if I had been, there is no doubt I would have rationalized not entering for a different reason. (‘Ah, the gate looks shut they must be closed.’) It was dark, and I was lurking in the shadows on the sidewalk across the street, but I still felt sickeningly nervous and anxious about being there. It is ludicrous, but I worried about a friend or coworker passing by in an Uber and seeing me as I stared at the masjid. I worried about a colleague or professional acquaintance walking out of the Islamic Center and recognizing me. I wanted to be invisible, but I also wanted to be there, and I did not know how to rectify that struggle. In retrospect, it is so clear to me how uncomfortable I still was deep down about wanting to be Muslim. My discomfort was not with Islam, but it was with trying to wrap my head around me being part of it. It was (and still is) a constant tug of war.

I would pass by the Islamic Center a few more times on various walks over the course of several months. I noted how the cab drivers would swarm during prayer times, but how there were otherwise only a few people coming and going. It legitimately took several months for me to work up the courage to think about going inside. I still constantly worried about seeing someone I knew: DC can be a horribly small town when you least want it to be. I also worried about having to explain what I was – partially because I did not actually know, and because I was still so uncomfortable assigning words to my experience.

My journey coming to terms with being Muslim took on strange forms at times. I had a strange aversion to walking into a masjid, yet I found myself buying hijabs and assorted accessories in preparation for the eventuality in which I would be attending mosque regularly. If I had to psychoanalyze myself, I think stocking up on hijabs was my way of helping myself feel like I was fully prepared and ready to make the transition to being Muslim. I did not want to jump into something unknown without having all of the necessary tools to make it a success. (Type-A strikes again.) Part of it too was feeling an anxiety about being different: I envisioned scenarios wherein I would walk into a masjid with a poorly tied scarf around my head and everyone would know I was lost and confused. I wanted to blend seamlessly; I did not want to call any more attention to myself than my pale skin would. It is strange to me, looking back, that I thought someone would have noticed my ‘otherness’ or newness and seen that as a sign of weakness when clearly that was only a figment of my insecurity.

I hated that I was making going to the masjid such an obstacle for myself. I can safely say that my journey to Islam has created more mental battles than anything else in my life, and it has also led to me overcoming them. One night in June I psyched myself up to go; I told myself I was going to do it no matter what. I rationalized it practically: it was less than two weeks until Ramadan, and I knew it was going to start getting crowded in the coming days. I did not want to fast for Ramadan without having ever been in a mosque; if I was going to commit to fasting for Ramadan, the more arduous of tasks, it was silly to be struggling to step over the threshold of the Islamic Center.

I brought with me an easy black hijab, one of the ones with a pre-sewn face hole that even I was able to make look ‘expert’. I was nervous and excited – that same mental battle – excitedly taking each step forward while telling myself to slow down, drag it out, you do not need to do this today. The Islamic Center is on Mass Ave in DC, a high-traffic street with lots of cars and embassies. The side streets leading towards it are quieter, if not deserted save for the occasional Diplomat-plated car cruising through. I worried about putting on the hijab on Mass Ave: what would it look like to someone driving by to see this blonde girl pulling on black fabric over her head? This time I worried less about friends in an Uber seeing me, instead I worried about someone catching a glimpse of my veiling and fearing a burglary, or worse, a threat to national security. (I work in the field, so it unfortunately crossed my mind.) I did not want to put it on at the mosque, either, for fear or someone there seeing me or in case my rushed fumbling with the fabric made it look askew. So there I was, in the shadows on a side street, methodically pulling on, folding, and pinning my new hijab and walking the remaining five minutes to the Islamic Center.

I felt like a completely different person in an instant, it was thrilling. I felt comfortable, my panic reduced to a dull ache. I felt okay. It felt right. I have the benefit of perspective, now, and I can see how important this moment was for me. It took me a while to work up to that point, yes, and there was a lot of unnecessary worrying and second-guessing, but ultimately that I was able to make a choice to go to the mosque was tremendously significant. It was the first of many times when I would have to push myself way out of my comfort zone to reach Islam. It was the first step on a very long, ever-growing, walk to self-discovery.

The buoyancy of the moment was hilariously short-lived. Approaching the Islamic Center, I realized my preoccupation about the hijab and timing my visit for a quiet night meant I had neglected to properly case the joint! I had no idea where the entrance was. All of my efforts to not look clueless were for naught, as I stared blankly around the complex wondering if I was meant to go in the front gate, or the side door, and whether the building was even open at all. I directed some frustration at the Islamic Center, for not understanding how nervewracking an initial visit for a revert or someone interested in Islam could be and putting information about hours and entrances on their website. It was just past 8pm, so ‘Isha had already happened but not so long ago that they would be locking up for the night, or so I had thought. I considered turning around right then and there. The panic bubbled up again. I wanted to leave, but the tiniest voice in my head told me to keep going. I knew I would be disappointed in myself if I had gotten that far and turned around because I was uncomfortable and afraid. I knew it would not sit well with me. I went around to the side gate, keeping my head down as a couple of cab drivers made their way out.

I went around to the side gate, keeping my head down as a couple of cab drivers made their way out. ‘Do I say salaam or am I supposed to not say anything?’ I kept walking towards what I hoped was the main entrance, a massive door (closed) with floor to ceiling shoe cubbies to the left and right. Three people were making their way out, and as I passed them, the man in the group stopped walking with them and turned around after me. I cannot remember much about the conversation because I was so nervous, but I do remember him asking if I had been there before, and if I was Muslim. I responded truthfully to his first question but heard a lie coming out of my mouth to the second: ‘Yes.’. I did not know how to explain what I was: I did not eat pork, I was planning to fast for Ramadan, I accepted the Oneness (non-Trinity) of Islam, but that was as far as I had gotten. So, perhaps yes, technically I was Muslim, but I had yet to take the shahada, so maybe I technically was not. I did not want to say I was interested in Islam, because I knew the response to that would be a lecture about religion. I did not need convincing; I needed to figure it out on my own. I know he meant well, but I was very guarded about explaining my situation. I was so accustomed to feeling like anyone I told was going to react with horror or try to talk me out of it that I was used to deflecting every inquiry.

He departed, while I again worried if I had committed some grave error by shaking his hand. I made my way over to what I hoped was the women’s section. It could have also been the storage area for extra chairs, I might never know. It was blocked off from the main prayer hall by tall wooden dividers, which made it impossible to see the rest of the space. I wanted to see the architecture and the designs, to appreciate the beauty of the building as I had once appreciated churches, but I did not want to be chastized for straying from my designated corner. A janitor turned into the section with a vacuum, but saw me and practically ran away. I wanted to feel some kind of magic or divine spirit being there, but so far the experience was devoid of that. I felt more like an intruder than anything else. I took some pictures, and a selfie to prove I had done it, but ended up heading out shortly after I had arrived.

Except my shoes were gone. Nothing, so far, about this visit had been seamless. I looked in each cubby, hoping someone had just moved them. No luck. I thought about my walk home, was it something I could do in socks? It was, or there was Uber, but I also really liked those shoes. I went back inside. It was funny, I thought, that I was getting to experience the disappearing shoe problem collectively experienced by Muslims at the mosque. It was, in that respect, now an authentic visit. I sheepishly asked someone if they knew whether shoes from the outside cubbies had been brought inside. He looked down at my feet. We walked down a back staircase, into the washroom area, and he presented me with a bookcase full of mismatched shoes. To my dismay, none were mine. Several minutes later, another trip up and down the stairs, and another bookcase of shoes later, they were located. Alhamdulilah.

I felt content leaving, and also very content to leave. It had certainly not gone as expected, but as I walked away I realized what better situation for some things to be awkward: I was alone, no witnesses to my stumbles, and surely now I could deal with anything that came next. It had not gone the way I planned it, but it was a good experience nonetheless. This is a lesson I am still learning.

I walked toward my apartment with my hijab still on. I could have removed it the minute I turned down a side street, but I recognized there would be few opportunities where I could wear a hijab out in public and not be completely freaked out. I passed people and tried to see if they looked twice. It did not seem so. How marvelous to feel so different on the inside, and to know you look drastically different than you normally do, but appear completely normal and – especially in DC – uninteresting to bystanders.

I think back to how nervous that visit made me, and how flighty I felt being there. It is funny to me now that when I am in DC for work, I am always trying to fit a visit into my schedule. The nervousness I felt before going into the Islamic Center in DC is gone, but now I feel it just as fiercely when I am going to the masjid near where my parents live, which is where I moved to. I still feel out of place when I am wearing hijab at the masjid – I have not worn it in public since that night – but less so than I did the very first time. Perhaps most importantly, I have become much better at articulating my relationship with Islam, and dealing with the insecurities it triggers. I could not have known in June 2015 how significant my visit to the DC Islamic Center would be in the grand scheme of things.