I have Abu Bakr Ash-Shatry on my iPhone, which is like saying ‘I have all his CDs’, except we’re in the 21st century. On Ramadan’s fifteenth night, my brother and I navigated our way to Rashidiyya and parked in a sandlot under the green line. There with time to spare, I was so enthusiastic I was practically nervous; to be led in prayer by someone who’s thus far existed solely digitally? I pulled out all the stops. I wore my first kandoura, a blue robe with a matching kaffiyeh on my head, a modest metallic silver pattern on a vanilla background. I looked like a—
What do you call a person from Dubai, anyway? (This is how my mind works.) You could say, for the moment, that I appeared indigenously Emirati, as overly broad as that claim is. My pan-Islamism overruns sartorial provincialities: my closet is my harem; I accumulate Punjabi kurtas, whimsical T-shirts, and the ubiquitous flowing garments that might’ve been what people here wore centuries ago, when they could not pore star-struck over prayer schedules, eager to find out when their favorite reciter would be in town and at which mosque.
But once prayers begun, I realized that our imam was not Abu Bakr ash-Shatry. This was the right night, I told myself, based on the fliers we’d consulted. And certainly we could not have gotten the mosque wrong. There were too many thousands of people to make sense otherwise. (Never before had I experienced a pre- or post-taraweeh traffic jam. I like places where God causes gridlock.) So maybe, my brother theorized, that ‘Shatry will lead taraweeh,’ the special prayers we’d really come for. How desperately I clung to this hope.
If you’re sympathetic to Tolkien’s wordsmithing, you’d recognize the value of calling Dubai’s own, ‘Ahl al-Burjayn,’ ‘the People of the Two Towers,’ which would be the Burj al-Arab and the Burj Khalifa. But they have not named themselves, strangely lacking a demonym though anything else that can be branded has been—they should, too, conjure a name for themselves, because they have a culture, and a religiosity, that can be profoundly attractive, and should be shared. Take pride in these things, please. Do not keep them for yourselves, but share them.
Every mosque is in immaculate condition.
Every reciter would command a serious salary in America, not just compensation but a benefits package. (Not their fault that they’re ahead of us in themadrasa game.)
They even perfume the mosques; you walk out and smell better than you ever have.
But let’s be realistic, which is to say business sensible. The denomynm has to have Anglophonic gravity, for which reason maybe we should go with Dubaiians—the Middle Eastern remix of an established and pacific paradise. And that’s what I was enjoying, a Dubaiian spin on Ramadan, which had reeled our SUV into a messy pre-construction site (which is to say, any empty space in Dubai), conquering curbs and blazing past smaller, wimpier cars, along with dozens of others with similarly oversized ride. It’s not their fault gas is so cheap.
I’d never done Ramadan in a Muslim country before, which is why Shatry’s presence was so animating and his absence so heartbreaking. Because once taraweeh started, it was the same imam. The wrong imam! The not-Shatry. He was really good, to be fair, but really good wasn’t good enough. While I appreciated this other imam’s mastery of the Qur’anic craft, I hadn’t left an hour in advance, braved unfamiliar roads and nigh-comatose post-iftar drivers promiscuously drifting between lanes at unhealthy speeds to listen to someone who I wouldn’t download onto my iPhone.
Thusly ruined my worship was, then further sabotaged by my own inter-prayer panic-attacks. Do you have those, too, where in between verses you wonder things like: have I come to pray to Him or to hear him and is everything else I’ve ever done similarly morally and ritually compromised? This was supposed to be the better Ramadan, the kind where the green carpet is rolled out for the willing worshipper—it’s easier to get your ibadah on because it’s just easier. Consider the difference between the (First) Muslim world’s and American Ramadans.
No American mosque dare compare itself to the superficial splendor of the Dubai mosque. I do not employ this adjective dismissively, but purely descriptively—we cannot afford millions on domes and minarets. (It’s not their fault they’re Muslims with money.) What we Americans lack in size, though, we make up in spirit. The prayer rug under your feet wasn’t provided for by a well-endowed government, but laid down with the loose change we find in our pockets and deposit into donation shoeboxes—the kind of repurposed container you might shove a high school science project into.
That’s something someone who’s only been Muslim among mostly Muslims couldn’t get—and should, I think, have the opportunity to experience. But Islam does not command any reflexive hostility to wealth, what with our religion conveyed to us by a mercantile Prophet, peace be upon him. So I don’t dismiss the Dubaiian dynamic merely because of their overflowed coffers. What makes mosques attractive to me is their tangible sincerity, which exists or does not no matter the cost of the prayer hall or the parade of cars that pull up—or do not. Yeah, I saw you checking me out, my abaya-clad sisters, suspecting I might be one of your kind, until I got into a Toyota.
It’s not your fault that you and your friends have a Bentley.
His name, I found out much later, was Idrees Abkar. The not-Shatry, I mean. Maybe you like him a lot and now you don’t like me very much. But consider my point of view. I was frustrated I’d apparently missed my shot at Shatry and then more frustrated because I couldn’t stop feeling frustrated; focus on the prayer, I told myself, and I focused so much on focusing that I fell off the wall. All my ploys and practices couldn’t get me back into the right frame of mind. This was the 15th night, where the hell was Abu Bakr ash-Shatry, and why does my Islam suck, and why do things never work out, and if this was the halfway point then how would I ever—
After taraweeh comes witr, Arabic for ‘odd’. (Our holiest site is the Ka‘ba, which means ‘cube’. Islam doesn’t play around.) In the final cycle of prayer, before the penultimate prostration, the imam leads the congregation in audible supplication. Typically this involves the regurgitation of a series of Prophetic pleas sung in a style nearly indistinguishable from Qur’an, though they are largely not of such provenance. Most such duas I’d been through were perfunctory affairs, me racing to translate the Arabic in time to know whether I should say ‘Ya Allah!’ or ‘Ameen’ before the imam started on the next entreaty; the whiplash of the ‘ajam.
In a postmatch interview, a top-ranked German tennis player described what it was like to lose to Rafael Nadal. “I am one of the top players in the world”, this athlete said, “not to brag, but to underscore what came next”. For, he clarified, I had no idea what was happening on the court, except it seemed to be me versus some kind of magic. I do not, to this day know what Idrees Abkar did, except that outwardly it resembled previous stabs at prayers.
He’d started like any imam would, but then he came to a fork in the road—and took it. Abkar started talking to God, forgetting we were in the room, simply not caring we were with him, or perhaps yearning for us to ascend to where he resided. If we could be inside his heart, for that is undoubtedly where this came from, Abkar must have realized: ‘I am speaking to my Creator.’ ‘I am speaking to Him because He created Me.’ He started crying. Bawling, truly. What, after all, does it really mean to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ and begin a prayer—talking to the One who made you?
It would be terrifying. And amazing.
‘You….’ He whispered. Then he mumbled it. Then he screamed it. Then he tried it again. ‘You,’ he managed, suppressing roiling sobs, ‘brought us from non-existence into existence.’ It is the most banal of points perhaps, but sometimes we need to go back to the very beginning, to the time when there was no time, because after all God created time. When this thought came vividly to his heart, it stabbed us too, and then he kept on, tearing us open and firing a water cannon of tears into our hearts. Grown men began to sob hysterically.
We were broken. But we knew it. We felt it. We couldn’t resist it.
Abkar made what is foundational into what is conclusive, wailing it, begging it, stating it, questioning it, swearing by it, collapsing into it, hiding inside it, running a giant circle around us and yanking us up with him. ‘You created us,’ he said, and then what he said next I will never—or I should say I hope I never—forget. ‘La ilaha illa anta.’ There is no God but You. He said it, over and over again, until not one of us was not shaking, breaking, struggling to stay on our legs, but that was only where he began, for with that out of the way, he asked, and how he asked, how painfully and unashamedly he described the miserableness of our souls and the griminess of our deeds and the insufficiencies of our actions that we felt there was no veil.
Why should there be? We are absolute monotheists, the people who keep our one finger raised come what may. I experienced the foundational principle of Islam in a way I could have never imagined. The direct and unhampered access to God of His creation, the petty things we are, given by the Lord of All the right to speak to Him, and the means to it. And on it went, and we wanted it to go on, never to stop—keep teaching us our faith. Make us feel it in our hearts and bones. Everyone should have the right to this.
When I was growing up, I had a fantastic and formative Sunday school teacher, a part-time doctor who was a full-time community leader. ‘Imagine if you were to describe the world that was coming to a fetus,’ he said to me. ‘She would not be able to believe you.’ When that supplication concluded and the prayer ended, nobody moved. For fear of breaking the spell of sacredness that, we knew, would have to be broken. For every ascension to God, there is a return to the world. Monotheists are not monasticists.
If this did not end, if this connection had not been snapped, then we would have been in paradise. We sat paralytically still. Some of us sniffled. Wiped away tears. Were surprised to realize they were ours. Stared at the floor, like it might tell us, yes, that just happened. Liberation. Longing. Cleansing. Shattering. So close. But still so far. We are after all only alive, and not until we die can we, maybe, just maybe, be like this always. Ramadan comes once a year because we cannot withstand such intensity in this world.
We are not strong enough to bear it. Or at least I’m not.
Shatry came on the 16th night.