By Lauren Wheeler
In the 30 seconds preceding the call to prayer at the mosque across the street from my host family’s apartment in Rabat, Morocco, I can hear the faint prayers from other mosques in surrounding neighborhoods. The prayer begins based on the position of the sun in relation to the location of the mosque. It comes in a wave, like a canon-style song, one mosque starting just moments before the other. I can detect the sounds of three or four distinct mosques before the prayer comes pouring through my window from the mosque closest to me. I enjoy when the voice of the muezzin (the man who leads the prayer) cracks, a reminder that this is not a recording.
On my first or second night in my family’s apartment, I woke in a panic to the prayer that began around 5 a.m. The panic did not subside as I sat wide-eyed in bed listening to the prayer finish. In those following moments, I knew there was another side to my fear that I could not fully attribute to being suddenly awoken, a fear I would reencounter frequently in my first weeks: internalized Islamophobia.
In the days, weeks and now months following, I returned to that moment in attempts to investigate the panic I felt. The only context in which I had heard the prayer before was in sound bites for media about terrorism — whether in news segments or films — with broad, sweeping shots of the desert and bearded men.
I apologize. I do not aim to recreate these depictions. I do not aim to justify my fear. But I do aim to identify, locate and question where my perceptions stem from. There were other moments in the first month where I found myself, foolishly, combating the same sense of panic I had in my bed on that first morning. I know that much of the fear came from navigating a new culture with a limited grasp of the language. As I discovered Rabat, I just barely knew what to do when things went right and was clueless when things went wrong. Still, I cannot overlook the insidious nature of Islamophobia in Western media and how it shaped my expectations for studying in a Muslim country.
The call to prayer still wakes me every morning. I rise and use the restroom. Creeping down the hallway, I listen to the feathery voice of my host mother, praying in the living room adjacent to the bathroom. I meditate on her spiritual reverence and deep compassion. Whenever there is a sick person or a death on the news, she will start whispering a prayer with a furrowed brow, her fingers pressed to her lips. Often she tells me she has prayed for my family, specifically for my sister who has been sick this semester.
I lie back in bed, wide-eyed, panicked about returning to the states in two weeks and confronting current dialogues about Islam and the Middle East. As someone who was interested in the region, language and culture, I had to live in a Muslim nation to unlearn much of what Western media gets wrong. I do not know how I will begin to communicate my experiences to an audience that does not wish to listen.
“People in America, they misunderstand my country, my people,” says the young man who has stopped me in the city to practice his English.
“Yes, they do,” I say.
“They see things happen and believe this is because of Islam. But these things that are happening,” he puts one hand over his heart, and gestures to the sky with his other. “They are not of my God, they are not my religion.”