Bad news: I am coming down with the flu.
The good news: Paris was amazing!
There was something in the air, I realized, as soon as I stepped off the Eurostar train.
Maybe it was the smell of savory and sweet crepes, or fresh baguettes. It didn’t smell like London.
I was in Paris. And the weekend was as magical as I had hoped for.
I don’t have the mental energy to recap my experience completely. And in some ways, I don’t think I should have to tell every detail. Some things can only be felt by those who feel them. Saw through one set of eyes, and retold but never reimagined with any precise possibility.
I visited the Louve. The artwork. Yes. The art.
The Eiffel Tower, in the night shone an electric blue that turned the sky purple. Every hour on the hour it sparkled in a frantic fire-cracker fashion for about 10 minutes. We went to the top. But before that, we sat in the park rejoicing over the delicious brie and baguettes and fresh fruits we shopped for at a nearby market, Rue Cler.
Earlier that day, I had been to the Grande Mosquee de Paris. It was modest, but proud. Beautiful. I had dragged my 3 colleagues with me to the Mosquee. Afterall, I had followed them into the Notre Dame. I hoped they enjoyed it. But I had no time to think about that. When I entered and looked past the visitors to see a sign marking the women’s ablution room, I decided to make Salat. It would be my first time, making Salah in a mosque and not my flat (apartment). I was excited, but also scared.
As I started the order of wudu, I greeted the older women getting ready for prayer as well. “Salaam Alaikum.” “Walaikum As-Salaam”. Such happy murmuring continued as I washed up. A young lady mopping up saw me struggling to keep the water running with one hand and wash with the other. She offered to hold the faucet down.
“No,” she said and corrected my steps. I had the order right, but not quite the technique. I again, felt humbled and slightly embarrassed. I felt a need to explain my ignorance. “I am new” I said, trying to convey in some clear words because I knew no French. And she knew a little English. She smiled and continued to watch me. Then correct me. Then smile again.
Finally, I was done. Retied my headscarf. Went up stairs.
Now, I had to find out where to make prayer. Men were sitting just outside the prayer room in a corner, eating rice from a large bowl with their hands and chatting. As I entered, I heard the loud recitations of the Qur’an by the men off in the front of the room. I followed another sister into the women’s quarters, in the same room as the men, just blocked off with a thick curtain for our privacy to be preserved. The women were calm. Some in prostration. Some sitting. Some chatting.
I looked off into distant faces, hoping someone would come up to me with the suspicion that I was not quite confident and would prefer to follow.
No one seemed be to paying much attention to me, mashaAllah, so I started.
As I mumbled out the Arabic that I had managed to memorize these past 4 weeks, I could feel my heart trembling with each verse. I could not help but feel overwhelmed. Tears would have thundered from my eyes had I not remembered that crying was not encouraged during the Salah. One is to be as conscious and focus as possible one’s intention, recitation, and sincerity. I focused on what I was saying, and after completing 4 Rakats, got up and exited the room.
I had done it.
Hamdulillah, I had completed an Asar prayer, for the first time. And not just anywhere. In Paris. In the Le Grande Mosquee. Alone. Without the comfort of my mother’s voice, telling me not to doubt myself, and that I was her hero. Without a friend to follow. I had done it, but not completely alone: I had done it through God’s will and I was happy with that.
As I walked out of the prayer section, I snapped a quick photo of the marble walls and Arabic script surrounding the center garden.
Then, I saw the sister who had helped me wash up. I greeted her again and we talked for a bit at the gift shop. Then we exited. She recommended I go to the bookstore directly next to the mosque for more gifts and materials. I guess she could tell I would rather she come with me.
We walked in and greeted the two store clerks. My “Salaam Alaikum” came a bit later, as I tend to forget to greet people. She helped me pick out a prayer rug, this beauuuuutiful tan rug with pink and gold embroidery complete with a built in compass for me to always know where the Qibla is. Oh, it is so gorgeous!
Then, I noticed what I thought was jewelry.
She explained to me, barely able to find the words, that these were prayer beads, or Misbaha. And she demonstrated, saying “Subhana Allah, Subhana Allah” (Glory be to God) stringing one bead each time. Then she carefully rubbed the necklace of beads between her palms then took her hands and covered her face as if she was washing it.
I watched, in awe. I had never seen this. I was so excited to get my own and she equally insisted. She continued to explain, as best as she could the many uses of the prayer beads. I was stuck between a baby blue necklace, and a deep red one. I went along with the blue one, after she explained the red was made of plastic and that the blue was made with ceramic and much finer.
Still amazed at what what she had shown me, I purchased my prayer rug, beads, and keychain compass. I wanted her to tell me again and again how to use the beads, just in case I had left something out. But, I felt bad for holding her up. After all, she had helped me wash my feet a little while earlier! And, she had already offered to host me in Tunisia, her home country, after I said with excitement how I was just reading on Tunisia and wanted to go.
As we walked out of the store, I asked her to let me buy her tea in the Mosque’s cafe. She agreed. There, she wrote down her Tunisia contact info and French contact info. I gave her mine as she tried to explain again how to use the prayer beads. We asked each other a few questions. I had loads more to ask but I didn’t want to seem to interrogative so I waited until she asked the first few.
“How old are you?” She was 21. Just in France to study for a term. I told her my bio in a few words. She asked me if I would be allowed to wear my hijab in school in the States. I told her that I do not know. “Are your parents Muslim?” I replied yes, but offered supplemental info about practicing and Nation of Islam that I am not sure she understood.
She told me how in Tunisia, she can wear her hijab everywhere but in school. And that during Ramadan, suddenly, all things Islamic are then okay. But just for Ramadan can one witness this or that. I interpreted her sentences in that way.
She then told me a funny story about how in Tunisia, during Ramadan, the stores are closed. No one is seen eating or they will be scolded. But she passed this Ramadan in Paris, for the first time. She told me she had not done so well, and that it was very difficult. I told her, I too, had failed miserably once I got to London. I wanted to learn much more about her, Tunisia, and Paris. But the language barrier was to strict, and my Arabic is far from conversational to speak to her in her native language.
When my colleagues met me at the cafe, I thanked her again and said my goodbye.
I was very happy to have met someone so nice so easily.
The rest of Paris wasn’t as eventful, but I had already experienced what I set out to. I was happy. Satisfied, I followed my colleagues for the rest of the weekend to more markets, churches, and sites. We ate more baguette, croissant, ice cream, savory crepes, and continued to butcher French.
Paris was as romantic as I had hoped. But in a different sense of the word romantic. As I paced about, I had a reassuring feeling that everything was as it should be, and that this moment is truly the culmination of the infinite number of moments before it. I deserve to enjoy it and I am obligated to stay present in it. And always, always, always remain thankful.
God is good.