Each morning I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you.
Allah is most great, Allah is most great. Come to prayer, come to prayer. Prayer is better than sleeping.
I cannot escape the morning guilt.
For years it came in the form of my mother belting Aretha Franklin as I wiped the sleepies from my eyes. I’d kneel by the side of my bed and bury my face in the comforter instead of actually praying, sleeping my way through Mom’s pressure. And now it comes in the form of a melodic cry, careening over the rooftops of Istanbul, past domes and rooftop gardens, and in through the window of my room, begging millions to greet the dawn. I roll over and, a replica of my youth, bury my faithless shame back into my pillow.
In a country of over 76 million Muslims, not to mention millions of Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Catholic Levantines and Sephardic Jews, it is hard to be Godless. As my tour group flits into the Blue Mosque, taking in the creamy tiles from Izmir and the exquisite calligraphy crowning the door frames, I am lost in focus, watching the men, women and innocent youth as they kneel on the lush carpet, brazen under the barest of feet, offering their arms in worship to an almighty being with the power to change their days. My eyes devour the ritualistic methods safe within the pashmina draped low over my forehead, and I feel invisible to them as I bar into their deepest beliefs. There is an aching in me to feel what they feel, and the desire grows louder and stronger until it is echoing off the vast dome above me, calling attention to my minute form from every angle.
An imposter, an imposter, the great mosque cries. Sharia law dictates that I should be stoned for my blasphemy, and indeed I feel pelted with a million rock-hard accusatory stares, though their origin is invisible, considering I am hidden in a sea of tourists. Self-projected solitude within the confines of the homogenous masses. Behind me, a flash of a camera goes off, breaking my trance, a healthy relief from the downward spiral of jealousy forming deep in my gut as I watch the people rise and fall, their moving outlines merely a shadow of their faith lit against the stained glass windows.
It hadn’t always been this way. I too once believed in the power of the universe to intervene on my behalf, in a God that listened and cared. My mother was a Catholic school principal. My grandmother made pilgrimages to Medjugorje. My aunt was a nun, and my sister claimed to see angels as a little girl. It went: church on Sunday, confirmation on Monday, Youth Group on Wednesday, no meat on Friday, and if luck was against me, a wedding on Saturday (double the church in a singular weekend). Unfortunately, this constant influx of faith became draining, and instead of submitting, I fought. I sought new ideas. I read the Koran, yes, but also the Torah and sacred Hindi texts. Instead of prayer, I protested, asking the whys and the hows that can only be answered with “faith.”
How do we know God is real?
We must have faith.
What happens when we die?
We must have faith.
If God is so freakin’ omnipotent and knows everything we’re going to do before we do it, and if people like Judas were so instrumental in bringing about the death of Christ and then his eventual resurrection and the eventual salvation of all humanity, then how the fuck is it fair for God to just be like, “Eh, thanks for all your help Judas. I saw it coming, so I saved a nice little spot in hell for you?”
…we must have faith.
Now I sit in the center of faith, quite literally “The City of Islam,” and I am Godless. I live in one of the religious segways of my youth, but my continued questions have made me a shell of a being and I feel incomplete. I cannot walk down a road without the imminent fear of God staring me in the face in the form of headscarfs and ablution fountains. The struggle to believe, while not new, is certainly intensified when faced with new perspective. These people do not believe what my mother believed, but they do indeed believe something, and that something is more powerful to the security of their soul than any other construct of society.
Why wouldn’t I want that security?
After a few weeks being wholly submerged into Islamic everyday life, my tour group leaves on an excursion of Southwest Turkey. We soak in the Aegean, watch holographic war depictions, and snap memory cards full of photos of old carved rocks. Our air conditioned bus chuggs along highways and back roads, through villages and cities, down treacherous cliffs and up to peaks of mountains. Often I’ll get on and off with absolutely no clue as to my whereabouts, but our pleasant guide offers an explanation almost immediately.
Ba-bum. We are now visiting the home of the …Virgin Mary. They think that, after Jesus died, John took Mary and brought her…here. An arm flaps wildly to indicate a rubbled road up the hill. Now we go and see where she lived, maybe, but probably not because the building is from third century. But use your… imagination. She lived here, and many people come, from around the world, to see it. Now we go.
The group takes off, ready to look at yet another site, but I feel lost, much like that day in the Blue Mosque. I follow up the path to the quaint stone structure, unimposing, and recognize daunting reality building around me. The doorway is dark, and one by one we pass into a small chamber with an altar ablaze with three candles, a portrait of the Virgin standing watch over the pilgrims and passerbys. An older woman, clad in white running shoes and the traditional tourist bum bag, kneels on a kneeler in the corner, but the room is otherwise empty except for the slanted light shining through the small window near the ceiling. My group passes through quickly. Just another ruin to the atheists I accompany, just some lady’s home to the Protestants.
But I am Catholic. This is my childhood at full force rearing its head in a land unexpected. The pearl rosary on the wall is my wooden rosary back in my bureau drawer. The simple, inlaid cross above the stone doorway is my crucifix that lay hidden at the back of my closet in the bottom of a cardboard box. This auspicious altar is my altar, where I had been baptized, fed, confirmed and blessed, the altar I had refused to visit sans an occasional desperate plea from my mother to save my most damned soul.
I had been distancing myself from my faith for all these years, finding solace in my incompatibility to associate with Islam because it wasn’t my religion. I could be jealous of everyone in Istanbul because their faith wasn’t something I would ever be able to ever grasp, because I wasn’t raised on it, wasn’t born and bred in the loving arms that were raised daily to an almighty Allah. Instead, I could I reject my religion on principal, and still yearn to find the meaning so many others seemed to grasp. It was a perfect predicament in which I could always be caught in limbo, a place, while daunting, was also familiar, and was thus somewhere I was comfortable staying. Here, though, bathed in a beam of light from the heavens above, there is nowhere to turn.
I look into the eyes of my Virgin Mother, and feel a distanced push from my biological mother, and I fall to my knees. I need to pray. But to whom and for what? It has been so long since I’d truly tried. I try to thank God for my blessings, try to ask for world peace or true love, but it all feels so forced. What did I need most in this moment? What did I desire? Here I kneel, finally in a place I almost belong, but amongst a sea of imposters pushing onwards to the next ruin.
There on that holy ground, I return to the mosque where I was the imposter in the multitudes of believers and tourists, so assured of their positions in the religious cycle: the watching and the watched. I see the men and women, illuminated in shards of light from the windows high above, bent in prayer just I am now. I feel the passive eyes of the tourists there, unaware of their judgmental nature, just like those I followed through this sacred space. I am lost and confused, but here I was at least trying again. How does one quantify feeling like an imposter at every turn, especially when one’s security of the cosmos is at stake? How?
I find my footing and leave the altar through a small side door, struck this time by the brightness from the outside world around me. I pass candles lit by pilgrims, a fountain where the sick wash to heal their wounds. I take a moment to write a note to tie to a wall full of prayers: Thank you. I don’t know why I choose those words.
My group is again ready to go, perched on a wall awaiting my return. Another site, another rock pile, another day. As we walk back to the bus, the low droan of a hundred voices echoes up from the valley as the midday call to prayer is sent fluttering up and out of the minarets from the village below. In that moment I haven’t a clue what I believe, what I know, or what I want. But as I listen to the faithful prayers, imagine the flux of people climbing the steps of the mosques below, I realize the ache in my stomach is gone, the jealousy of other’s security in God vanished. Regardless of what I believe, where I come from will continue to shape my being, and amidst my lingering insecurity, at least find solace in that.
Forever and ever, you’ll stay in my heart, and I will love you To live without you would only mean heartbreak for me.
Allah is most great, Allah is most great. Come to prayer, come to prayer. Come to success, come to success.