On the first night of Ramadan in Southern California last week, the heat was taking its toll. The fans spun overhead in the dimly lit room as the first prayers were melodically recited by an imam who had made the journey from Diamond Bar. His voice and his pronunciation was a thing to behold, they told me.
Bottles of cold water were handed out, providing temporary relief. Even the walls, decorated with framed, golden-threaded Arabic phrases, might have been sweating, but the heat’s persistence was no match for the faith flooding into the Glendale Islamic Center.
“Allahu Akbar” was called out.
“God is great.”
I pulled my scarf over my head and navigated through a sea of women in colorful hijabs, some light pink, some floral, burgundy and black. The almost silent whisper of prayers could be heard between verses. In the intense words and rhythms that accompany the evening prayers of Ramadan, known as Tarawih, there is concentration and devotion.
Unlike shorter prayers during the day, the Tarawih is not for the uncommitted. The rakats, or movements and words during prayers, are lengthy. There is standing and reciting, and bending and bowing. There is a complete submission to God when you reach for the ground and then rise just a bit to tuck your feet under your body.
There is turning to your left and right, in a bid to acknowledge those around you, and offer them peace and blessings.
When it’s over, there’s camaraderie and long embraces.
On the first night of Ramadan in Glendale, some read the Quran during breaks, some got caught up in conversations as the week came to a close. Whatever they did, they were happy to have the space to do it in. Because the participants at this masjid, or mosque, had been waiting for these moments for a very long time.
Rola Daouk is one of them. Originally from Lebanon, she has lived in Glendale for 22 years and waited patiently for a mosque to be erected in her community.
“I’ve been dreaming of this day,” she told me while everyone enjoyed the hearty Iftar meal around us. “I was so happy I cried.”
For Daouk, Ramadan means happiness.
“Can’t you see the love?” she exclaimed, as she greeted women and children who came to say hello to her.
It was refreshing hanging around with these women. Beyond their kindness, there’s more to them than a veil, which they insist they wear because they want to, not because they have to. They are engineers and neuroscientists. They are mothers and wives. And they want their community to know that they are not oppressed.
While women’s rights in Islam is a debated concept, Durre Shamsi, a Glendale resident, said that it’s a misconception she might not possess the same rights as other women when it comes to education, relationships or even driving.
And she emphasized the inclusion of the Muslim community into the national landscape as well.
“We’re Muslim, but we’re American too,” she said.
Many of the women I spoke to echoed Shamsi’s sentiments. They were disappointed with the media’s coverage of their global community, upset that the focus was on extremists more often than not, leading to judgment and discrimination.
But a few were quick to point out that the Muslim community needed to make equal efforts to be understood.
Shamsi said newer generations, with their ingrained hybrid Muslim-American identities, are helping to bridge those gaps.
As Glendale’s first mosque reflects during the holy month of Ramadan, and celebrates their position in the local landscape, they’re doing their part, too: careful not to wake their neighbors, but more than willing to welcome them if they’d like to learn about Islam, or just indulge in good conversation and baklava.
[This is the second in a two-part series on the Islamic Center of Glendale and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.]
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at email@example.com.