"Helping Promote a Better Understanding"

I left the U.S. during a time when Americans were struggling with their perceptions of an entire religion, that of the Muslim faith.  I didn’t understand the messages of hate which were being expressed by my fellow Americans and I thought (and I still think) it came from a lack of understanding and a fear of the unknown.  Serving here in Azerbaijan with the Peace Corps has confirmed just how wrong so many of my American compatriots are on this topic.

For the first time in my life, I attended an Islamic service held at a mosque.  One of my new friends asked me to please come with her for the service of Ashura, a Muslim day of mourning which remembers the martyr Husayn Ibn Ali (prophet Muhammad’s grandson) and 72 of his companions who were killed fighting for justice in 680 AD.  She said it would be very important for me to learn about and it was important to the Muslim people.  How could I say no?

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  My friend lent me a hijab to cover my hair.  She was also nice enough to place it on my head for me, adjusting and tucking where needed.  She showed me the end result with a hand mirror.  We went to the mosque together and gathered with the community of Mingəcevir and with Shia Muslims around the world.

Hundreds of people gathered behind the mosque. There was singing in Arabic which, although I didn’t understand, evoked from me a strong emotion of sadness.  Throughout the crowd, individuals repeatedly placed their hand over their heart, a “thump-thump” sound reverberating off chests, an echo which seemed to take on the form of a human heart beat.

There was a lot of crying.  As a Westerner, I’ll admit that it made me uncomfortable and I looked to my shoes for refuge.

My friend would lean over and whisper to me, explaining in English the various parts of the service and the rituals surrounding them.  We stood for two hours outside in the December sun (and cold) while many mourned the martyr of long ago.

The most thoughtful moment I had during the service was this: Ashura is a day of mourning.  Muslim people attend the service to remember those who were killed fighting for justice so long ago and because Husayn Ibn Ali’s fight for evenhandedness is still relevant to this day.  However, despite the many moments of learning and observing something new, what struck me as the most profound were the similarities between this service and one which you might see in the U.S.  I know that may seem like an odd statement to make, but among the ceremonial rituals, I also observed teenage girls gathered in the back of the crowd, quietly conversing with one another.  Occasionally, an inappropriate giggle would emerge, eliciting a disapproving glance from one of the Xanims.  Restless children tugged on the bottom of their mothers abaya (the long black robe you will see Muslim women wear) and begged for their attention. Babies cried. Mothers came with diaper bags and strollers.   A few children ran after one another and weaved in and out of the crowd.  One mother placated her crying son with candy taken from a pocket beneath her abaya.  A grandmother held her grandson above the many heads in the crowd so he could see the singing.  People who came late held the hand of another, pushing their way to the front of the crowd in hopes to see all. 

Despite the many new things I observed, I also noticed a more universal truth, which I hope we can all someday learn.  There is so much in each of us that is the same.

One of the missions of the Peace Corps is to “help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans” and this experience has certainly helped me to do just that.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.