Friday, April 27, 2007

A World Apart

Anyone who has known me long enough has known what a fascination I've always had for Islam. So when I heard that we'd be visiting Mosques on our recce (pronounced 'rekky,' short for 'reconnnaisance'), I was internally jumping up and down.

The Regent's Park Mosque is perhaps the most prestigious and affluent Mosque in London. Lying in the heart of one of London's most posh neighborhoods, it is an architechtural beauty. A large golden dome, a tall white minnar, and lush, green grounds surrounded by tall iron gates.

I walked around cautiously and quietly ... there were few people on the grounds, and all men. The man who showed us around (the director of the mosque) was an affable Pakistani man, dressed in a crisp suit, with a light hearted demeanour, and made us all immediately feel at ease about shooting in the Masjid. We entered the main prayer room ... the carpet was rich in its pattern and shades; from the high domed ceiling hung an enourmous crystal chandelier. By the way, this Mosque is under direct jurisdiction by Saudi Arabia-- if that helps you imagine the kind of grandeur I'm trying to describe here.

The man asked me to wear a scarf to cover my head. I suddenly felt sheepish ... for someone who claims to be so 'into' Islam, that was a pretty daft thing to do. I had, however, changed my shirt several times in the morning when trying to figure out what to wear, because I didn't want to wear anything too form fitting or low cut. Oh well. It was a mental note to be made for when we came to shoot.

We confirmed our shoot of 3 days at the Mosque while the 5 of us sat at a 30 person conference table. This is the conference room where the Islamic (religious) leaders of 29 Muslim countries meet once a year. I thought to myself 'There are 29 countries with large Islamic populations ?' I think I could name 10.

I left that Mosque feeling like I had just a childhood fantasy come true. I really do look forward to shooting 3 days there.

Today, we visited a Madarsa - an Islamic school, that also had a mosque in it. A large brick building, right on the sidewalk in the middle of east London (i.e.ghetto), this place immediately had a totally different feel than the grand Regent's Park Mosque. I hesitated as the others in my group entered the 'Men's entrance.' An old man, in kurta pyjama, skull cap, with a long grey beard, befitting every stereotypical image I could conjure of a Maulvi shook his head smiling and said 'No, no, come in, it's ok.' I felt obliged, and walked slowly behind the men . Our production manager asked, 'Doesn't she need a scarf?' The man smiled, 'It's ok, humari beti hai.' I felt touched.

The man happily showed us the grounds. The 1st floor consisted of the main prayer room, the back room for funerals (as well as the room for preparing the body and the body refrigerator!) and the large kitchen with pots large enough to cook a whole lamb in, straight.

The 2nd floor was another large room where the Imam would preach sermons. This would be the room that we would be using for our shooting. Lucky for us, it was quite large, and the carpet was nice and rich looking -- similar to that of the other Mosque -- so it would work for us.

"In our Mosque," the old man proudly announced, "Men and women never see eachother."

He led us to the partitioned 3rd floor, where the students were taught. We entered a large room where 100+ young boys were seated on the ground in different groups. It was quite loud, and our entry definitely created an unexpected hush for the crowd: there was a girl their room. And that too, dressed 'immodestly' (I was wearing jeans and a sweater). I heard a 'cat call' of 'Subhanallah' as we walked past a group, but lucky for me, all the boys were under the age of 12, otherwise I would have felt really weird being there. I still felt weird being there.

We walked over to the girls section. I thought to myself, "Ok, now I'll feel at ease, and maybe the men will feel like the estranged ones." 40 girls sat on the ground at tables, all around 6-8 years of age ... wearing a black hijab that covered everything but their beautiful round faces, and curious eyes. To my surprise, I was still the object of amusement, and not the other 4 men accompanying me. I was allowed to see other rooms where the older girls were being taught, as the men waited outside. I also saw the separate women's entrance -- and couldn't help but notice that it had hard, cement steps, while the men's side had carpeted steps. Maybe I was reading a little too much into it?

We soon left the Madarsa, and I found myself rather in a rush to get out of there. Aside from feeling very out of place with four men, I felt like I was in a different world altogether. It was a world I was completely unfamilar with; something I had only read about. I know this experience will stay with me for a long time.

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