The Model and the Mosque
by Emily W
“Ok, hold that pose.”
Daphne froze in place as the photographer snapped several pictures of her from a couple of different angles. Next he had her change position so that the blue ocean was behind her. They took several more pictures and then it was break time. The models and crew walked over to the shaded area set aside for them.
Daphne Curtis had rapidly ascended the world of modeling to become one of the most well paid people in her profession. She was currently shooting for the Fantasy Girls line of magazines and calendars along with several other models. For the shoot they had been flown out to Ma’rifa Island. It was a small island somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Amongst people who enjoy expensive vacations it was well known for its beautiful beaches.
Daphne looked out at the expanse of ocean beyond the beach. The water was a light blue color and the people swimming and playing in it seemed to be enjoying themselves. Daphne thought about how far it was from these beaches until one would reach any other land.
“Planning on going swimming after the shoot?”
Daphne turned and saw Aileen, one of the other models. They had only just met the previous day when they had to take the long plane flight out to this remote paradise.
“Maybe, I was just thinking how amazing it is that this island is so far from anything else.”
“Yeah, it was only the longest plane flight of my entire life to get out here.”
The two of them looked out at the ocean for a few moments before something caught Aileen’s eye. Daphne followed her gaze to away from the beach and towards the interior of the island. She thought she saw what Aileen was looking at. A woman in an all covering black covering that women in the Middle East wore was walking down the sidewalk that ran the perimeter of the beach. Ever since their chartered plane had arrived on Ma’rifa Daphne had seen such women. Some were at the airport, and others walking along the streets during the drive to the hotel.
“Jerry, the shoot manager, he told me that most of the people who live on this island are Muslims.”
“Really?” Daphne asked. She felt a little embarrassed that she had been ignorant of that fact up until this point. The veiled women had seemed to be a minority, but then there were so many tourists on the island that could have just been Daphne’s perception.
“Yeah, I guess there is suppose to be some really old mosque in the middle of the island that is really famous or something.”
“Oh,” Daphne said. She thought about what she had just heard for a moment and then a question came to her. “We are not going to be in any trouble are we, for modeling here?”
Aileen shook her head. “I don’t think so, this place makes all of its money on tourism. Jerry told me that they tolerate everything that happens here on the beaches, but that if we want to go inland we have to dress a little more modestly.” Aileen’s gaze then went down to Daphne’s body and Daphne looked at her own skimpy yellow bathing suit. She thought about the woman covered from head to toe in black that they had just seen, from her perspective Daphne might be scandelously underdressed.
The break eventually came to an end and the models and crew resumed the shoot until the early afternoon when the photographer’s best light was gone. Jerry called it a day and everyone went walking to their beachside hotel. Rather than go swimming, Daphne decided that she wanted to explore the island. She caught to Jerry and told him about her desire to go sight seeing.
“I don’t think it should be a problem. The crime rate is really low here and the locals all know that their economy depends on tourism. However, you are going to want to cover up a bit more than you are now.” Jerry’s gaze wandered down to Daphne’s bikini clad body. This look was clearly meant to emphasize what he meant, but it lingered just enough that Daphne knew what he was thinking. Jerry was not as bad as some of the men she had encountered in her line of work, but he was hardly a saint either.
Daphne returned to her room and exchanged her swimsuit for a knee length skirt and a white shirt. She put on her heeled sandals and put a camera into her bag and began her trek away from the hotel and towards the center of the island.
Ma’rifa was essentially the shape of a triangle. Along the beaches on each side were hotels and tourist beaches. In the interior was the town center and airport, and towards one of the points of the triangle was a very large hill covered in tropical trees and plant life. At the top of the hill was a structure with tall towers and after some asking Daphne was informed that it was the island’s mosque.
Along with the line of hotels and palm trees on the beaches there was a road that ran the entire perimeter of the island. On the opposite side of this road were most of the businesses aimed at tourists. These were in modern style buildings for the most part and had electric lights. Beyond this the buildings quickly changed in terms of style and had a historical feel to them. There were several restaurants and shops that catered towards the tourists. The locals were of some blended ethnicity that Daphne could not quite place. They spoke Arabic, but because of the tourism industry they all had some English skills. When interacting with them they seemed distant, but polite. It was as if they would prefer to keep to themselves, but they knew the importance of the tourists so they did their best to be helpful. Along the sidewalks there were placed palm trees that provided some shade. Occassionally there was a small alley with a cobblestone surface. Daphne eventually realized that there were the original, smaller streets of the town.
As Daphne venture further she noticed there were fewer tourists and more natives. Almost all of the women were completely covered from head to toe in black except for their hands and eyes. For Daphne it was a very strange sight and she marveled every time she saw a new woman dressed in such a way. She begin to feel slightly uneasy about her own dress. Even though far more of her was covered with the skirt and shirt than had been with the swimsuit, amongst the sea of completely covered woman she stuck out.
Eventually she was the base of the hill and there was a place where carefully placed bricks had created a staircase that climbed up towards the mosque. She stopped a passerby and asked if it was permitted for people to go up the steps and take pictures of the mosque. The man answered in the affirmative and so Daphne began the long climb.
The steps would go up, turn right or left, go up some more, turn again, and so on and so on. On either side of her there was a small sandstone brick wall that came up to about her waist. Beyond the wall was thick and lush vegetation. Leafy plants and other green coverage helped to provide some shade during her ascent.
Well before she was half way up Daphne felt like she was getting a workout. She paused a couple of times, both to catch her breath and to take some pictures of the view. Even at this point the town seemed small and even the towering hotel she was staying in seemed small.
When she reached the top she pulled out her camera again. The entire top of the hill was a smooth surface made out of stone except for along the edges where more palm trees grew. The mosque was a breathtaking display of architecture. The building was made out of some sort of yellow stone. At each corner of the square structure there was a towering pillar. Near the top of each was an open space for a person to stand and on the roof of each of these was a crescent.
Daphne approached one of the pillars. The carefully cut stones that it was made of had been smoothed into a circular shape. She reached out and touched the surface, the stone was warm from the sun’s rays shining down on it. It gave the building the sense of radiating warmth. Daphne began to walk along the building and as she did her hand gently traced along its surface for a moment moments.
She eventually reached the front and felt a little foolish when she saw that on the opposite side there was a more gradual road that led up to the location. Still, the hard journey up the stairs had been worth it for the serenity of the place.
There were a couple of fountains and some gardens growing in front of the entrance. The fountains were simple circular pools from which spring a light stream of water. The gardens hosted all sorts of leafy plants. A strange looking brown butterfly landed on one of the planets. There were also a couple of stone benches scattered about and on of these was another woman completely covered in black. With her uncovered eyes she was reading a book. When the woman noticed Daphne she stood up and approached her.
In accented, but perfectly understandable English she said, “Hello. May I help you?”
Daphne suddenly and strangely felt shy. “I was just interested in taking a look at the building.”
“Oh, well you are welcome to come inside.”
“Yes, this place is open to all who are seeking knowledge.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“Come,” the woman said before turning and walking to the inner doors that gave entrance to the building. Just inside the doors were a shoe rack where the woman placed her black sandals. Daphne followed her lead and put her own heeled sandals there as well.
Once they were inside Daphne was amazed by the sight. The exterior of the building with its smooth stone surface had been impressive. The inside was beyond impressive, the walls were covered with elaborate mosaics of geometric shapes. When looked at long enough one could see all sorts of scenes depicted by them, flowers and birds and buildings. Higher up on the wall was the squiggly writing of Arabic. In white writing on a blue surface it traced its way around the room, up and down arches, and then ending where it had begun.
Above the mosaics and calligraphy light poured into the central hall, illuminating it with rich, golden rays from the sun.
The veiled woman paused at the entrance to the main room. “Please spend as much time in here as you feel is necessary.”
“Thank you,” Daphne said.
The woman in black then left and Daphne spent a few moments taking in the entire sight. Archways with detailed calligraphy ran along the perimeter of the room, and at the far end there was a tall podium that could only be reached by steps. She supposed that was were the sermons, or whatever it exactly was that Muslims had, was spoken. The steps and the railing along side them were cut from a deep brown wood.
Daphne walked to the center of the room and spent a measureless time just admiring the sight. She really did not know much about Islam, or any religion for that matter. Her parents had not been religious so it had never been a part of her life. She had met a couple of Muslims before in her life. They seemed pretty nice, nice enough for her to know that not all Muslims were angry or terrorists. Still, she sometimes felt afraid of Islam because of all the violence in the Middle East and the way so many women were mistreated.
However, this building and this room were beautiful. If one got to be in this building once a week she could see the appeal for the people living on this island. She looked up at the windows where light poured into the room. She took a couple of steps into where the light was shining on the floor. She felt the warmth climb up her body and onto her face. It became so bright she closed her eyes.
Daphne dropped her bag to the floor and just stood in the light, letting it wash over her as if it were water. Things in her mind became more peaceful. It was not that she was letting go of her thoughts, it was just that everything in her life seemed more remote at the moment. It was as if she was resting on top of the ocean and her work and life and worries were laying on the beach. They would be waiting there for her when she returned, but for the moment she was able to just enjoy this experience.
Daphne opened her eyes, just slightly, a small sliver to let in some of the light. The warm orange glow filled her thoughts. She imagined herself swimming in a sea of warm light. Is that what heaven would be like? The serene beauty of rest?
So peaceful a state was Daphne in that it was not until the shifting sun had moved the beams of light to an entirely different part of the room that she realized how long she had just been standing there. She picked up her bag and walked back out in the courtyard, the veiled woman was sitting on her bench.
“Did you get everything you needed?” The woman behind the veil asked.
“Oh yes, thank you-thank you,” Daphne answered clumsily. She then left the courtyard and made her way to the hotel. As she descended the stairs she paused more than once to admire the beauty of the town below. The light had begun to fade into twilight and the lights in the city below were beginning to come on. Everything seemed so peaceful.
On the walk back she sensed something. Her mind was free of anxieties, but that was something tugging at her…a feeling. There was something about that room. Things had seemed so different in there…
During the shoot on the next day Daphne found a thought lingering in the back of her mind. She was still totally focused on her work, but this was just because it was something she needed to get done before…
That mosque and its main room came into her thoughts. There was something about that place. She had experienced something there but she was not sure what.
During the shoot she was wearing a different bathing suit. Hundreds if not thousands of pictures of her were taken that day. Some of those images would find their way into magazines and calendars. Daphne had worked very hard to reach this point. She spent long, exhausting hours on shoots and had endured some unpleasant experiences. When she had been signed for the Fantasy Girls shoots she thought it had all been worth it.
After the shoot she went back to the hotel to change and made her way back to the mosque. Instead of taking the easier road up the other side of the hill, she chose the steps and somehow this harder path felt more rewarding. When she reached the top she circled around to the entrance again and once again the woman in black was there, reading her book. When she saw Daphne she stood up and approached her.
“Back again, do you have questions?”
“No,” Daphne answered quickly. “I was just curious if I could go inside again.”
“Of course, you do not need me to show you the way this time.”
Daphne walked to the entrance and after putting her sandals on the shoe rack she went inside. She felt a little disappointed when she saw that there were three people already in the room. In different parts of the room were three veiled women. They were were busy performing Muslim prayers. They would bow and then sometimes kneel. Daphne immediately felt guilty for being upset that they were here. They had as much right to this room as she did, it was their mosque after all.
After a couple of moments Daphne was actually glad that they were here. Watching them kneel gave her an idea. She walked over to a part of the room where the sunlight was shining and knelt down. She did not replicate their Muslim prayers, she did not even know them, but kneeling somehow felt right. She closed her eyes and tilted her head downward a little.
She was pleased to find that she felt as peaceful as she did the previous day. For the first time she began to seriously think about God. Even though she had never been religious she had wondered, as all people wondered, whether He existed. Growing up in England she supposed she had always had a Christian God pictured in her mind even if she was not a Christian herself. Of course, even though she had never known what God was exactly she always felt that he would be good. And if God was good he wouldn’t discriminate based on religion. What did it matter if someone called themselves a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim. A good person was a good person.
The thought of whether God was trying to reach her in this place began to swirl around in her mind. If the peaceful feeling she got from this place was what God was all about she could see the appeal. But if this was the place that she was connecting with God did that mean she should become a Muslim? One part of her mind insisted it did not make any difference what religion someone was, as long as they sought after God. Another part of her mind insisted that if this place was helping her to see than this might be the path for her. Of course, there was no reason that these both could not be true.
After several hours Daphne stood up and went back outside. The veiled woman sitting on the bench was still reading. She noticed Daphne.
“Did you get everything you needed?”
Daphne returned to her hotel, her mind in a place far away.
During the third day of shooting Daphne found her thoughts weighed down by the mosque. Even as she took provocative pose after provocative pose her thoughts were nowhere near what was happing to her body. This particular day’s shoot ended earlier than the others as the photographers needed time to sort through the tremendous number of pictures they had taken. They would continue the following day for supplemental shots.
Daphne was delighted by this earlier end to the day. As soon as she was able to she was changing in her hotel room and then beginning the trek to the mosque.
“Back for a third day!” The veiled woman exclaimed.
Daphne smiled and nodded.
“Are you sure you do not have any questions you would like to ask?”
“Uh, no. Not really, I just want to look around again.”
“Well, that is fine. However, you should be aware that because you have come at this time of the day prayers will be soon.”
“Oh, should I wait?”
“You can go in there now, but when the sisters arrive you will have to be respectful of them.”
“Should I leave when they arrive.”
“It will be enough for you to stand at the back of the room.”
After taking off her sandals Daphne entered the room. Each step she took felt like she was traveling a great distance. When she reached the center of the room she looked up at the mosaics. The various squares and triangles and others shapes practically danced . They formed flowers and birds and when Daphne turned in place it was like those birds and took flight and were flying across the walls. Daphne began to turn in place a bit quicker, the images she saw continued to fly, to move, to be. She turned in place faster and faster.
Eventually she came to a stop and closed her eyes. But it was as if she could feel the images she had seen still moving, flying across the walls of the mosque. She stood there, eyes closed, with flock of geometrical birds circling her on the walls. Everything about this place was magical.
She emerged from this experience in time to see the first of the women entering the mosque. Reluctantly, Daphne walked to the back wall of the mosque. A steady stream of women entered, their footwear removed and to Daphne’s amazement their face veils off. She looked from woman to woman and wondered which was the woman who sat outside.
The woman gradually lined up in rows. Over unseen loudspeakers a male voice began speaking in Arabic. Even though she could not understand the words, Daphne found the chant like speaking beautiful. The previous day she had seen a couple of women performing Muslim prayers. This experience was radically different. The women would bow in unison, eventually they kneeled in unison. Daphne wondered if they were getting the same sort of feeling she got from this place. Then she thought about the implication of that, an entire room full of women expeirencing the same connection.
Then the kneeling women leaned forward and touched their foreheads to the floor. Daphne felt like she had just fallen from a great distance. She closed her eyes, as the women in the room prayed she focused on the feeling she had experienced here. She felt it again. The peace, the serenity. She just allowed it to wash over her…
…when Daphne opened her eyes she discovered that the women praying in the mosque had already left. Judging from the change where the sun was it had been quite some time. Daphne put her sandals on and walked out side.
“Did you get everything you needed?” The veiled woman asked.
“Yes,” Daphne simply said.
She returned to her hotel room. After eating she spent her time sitting in a chair, looking out the sliding class door towards the hillside with the setting sun behind it. What was so special about that place? She felt something there that she had never felt before. Was it God?
On the fourth day of shooting Daphne noticed something. Off of the beach, standing beneath some palm trees a woman in black was watching her and the photo shoot. Several people had stopped to look at the models but they usually moved on after a couple of minutes. This woman was watching them intently and she remained for the entire day’s worth of work. A suspiscion as to who it was emerged in Daphne’s mind.
After the day’s work was done Daphne picked up her bag, put on her sunglasses and heeled sandals and walked over to where the woman in black stood. As she approached the woman concealed in black her suspicions were confirmed.
“Hello,” Daphne said to the woman from the mosque.
“Did you come here to see me?”
“Yes, I was curious about you. For several days you visited the mosque.”
Daphne thought about the difference between the two settings, the serene and austere mosque and the flashing modeling shoot. “What did you think about what you saw.”
“I think I understand now why you were so drawn to the mosque. You clearly were in need of something that you found there. Having watched you today I see that you come from a cruel, male dominated culture.”
The last words the woman spoke were so unexpected that Daphne needed a moment to be sure she really did hear what she thought she heard.
“I’m sorry, what you just said, it does not make any sense to me.”
There was a discernible expression in the eyes of the woman, was it…pity?
“I suppose that you do not. Please, come with me.” The veiled woman led them back towards the mosque. Halfway on the journey Daphne realized she was still wearing her bathing suit from the photo shoot. She began to feel uneasy about her appearance as she was now in a sea of women who were covered in black. She had never felt awkward about being out in public in a bikini now but she found herself wishing she was wearing something less revealing.
Daphne was grateful when they reached the stairs and began ascending upwards to the mosque. When they reached the entrance both of them removed their sandals. Daphne’s mind was full of questions and these questions only grew as the woman led them, not to the central room but through the doorway that led to the descending flight of stairs that circled down. At the bottom of the steps they reached the entrance to the private praying space.
The two women walked into the center of the room and then stood there for several moments, looking at each other.
“What did you mean, about me coming from a cruel, male dominated culture?” Daphne asked.
“What did you think I meant?”
“I’m not sure, it was a strange comment because…”
“Well, it seems to me that you come from a male dominated culture.”
“And why is that?”
“Because of how you are dressed.”
“Ah, yes. But you must understand, I think your culture is male dominated because of how YOU dress.”
Daphne blinked her eyes for a moment as she tried to comprehend this. “I’m sorry, I do not understand what you mean.”
“Of course you do not. When we live in a system that oppresses us we can be blind to the oppression. You come from a culture where your dress is dictated by men, whether you think you have a choice or not.”
“But…surely you must understand that you come a culture where YOUR dress is dictated by men?”
The veil woman looked Daphne with those eyes, those penetrating, knowing eyes. “It is true that many women in the Muslim world are forced to wear niqab. This is wrong, and those men who force women to wear it are wrong. They have completely failed to follow Islam, which insists that there can be no compulsion in religion. I do not wear the niqab because a man tells me to, I wear it because it pleases God.”
“But, are you not being forced to wear these clothes by someone, if only God?”
“I choose to wear these clothes. It is pleasing for God so I have made the decision to wear it. God is not forcing me, God does not force us to do anything. Ultimately the true joy of niqab is that it is something I do for myself. It pleases God that I wear it, I am pleased when God is pleased by me, so I make the decision to wear it. Your clothes are not worn to please God, you have not made the decision to wear them. The decision was made for you.”
“No, I decided to wear this today. I made a decision to wear it.”
“No, you believe that you made that decision. But you must keep in mind, there are many women who have had the decision to wear the veil made for them. The men who dominate their culture have done it just as the men who dominate your culture have done it to you. These men give you the choices that they think are acceptable and you must choose from them, is that really allowing you to make the decision?”
Daphne thought about what the woman had just said. It seemed to make a good deal of sense. More sense than Daphne would have expected. She then looked down at her body which wore only a skimpy orange and blue swimsuit.
A thought then occurred to Daphne. She had seen this woman for several consecutive days now. This mysterious woman whose name she had not even learned. Daphne found the question emerging from her lips.
“Who are you?”
The veiled woman looked at her for a long time, her eyes penetrating Daphne, knowing everything about her. The woman then reached up with her hands and pulled back her niqab to reveal a face both intimately familiar and strangely alien.
It was her own face.