As I entered the basement of the mosque, the other guests, obviously primed for the appearance of a Christian, closed in and welcomed me like I was some sort of superstar. They led me to the front of the room and would have had me sit in the front row, but I thought that was a little much and managed to beg off and grab the second row.
The email had come without warning: "I know that this late notice, but I wanted to invite you to my wedding next Sunday at 6:30 p.m."
Out of the blue for sure. I didn't know the young man all that well, and the wedding was only a little more than a week away on a Sunday evening. But then I remembered that Abdullah Dakhlalla was a Muslim, and Saturday was their holy day.
Abdullah had worked in my office this past summer, not directly for me, but in one of the other sections. He came to my notice as he was just about the first Mississippi State University engineering student that we've had who didn't drive a truck or wear a cap so low on his head that you can't see his eyes. He had an open countenance, curly black hair that sort of stuck out in all directions, an easy smile, and he made a mean batch of baklava.
After he went back to MSU, he contacted me a few times about writing some proposals for his graduate work, and I helped him. He lived in the same neighborhood as my daughter in Starkville, and they saw each other once in a while, so he would occasionally send home a batch of baklava with her.
I called my daughter, Jillian, and asked her to go with me, and she was quite excited. We were both a little nervous about attending the wedding as we were not sure of the customs and did not wish to offend anyone. But Abdullah said not to worry, that Jillian would be welcome, and there would be no problems with offending anyone.
The mosque is located in a quiet street off the Cotton District in Starkville with little to distinguish it from the other houses around it. It looks like a duplex, symmetrical down the center with doors on either side.
We followed an elderly black woman in through the right-hand door and down a set of steep stairs leading to what turned out to be a walk-out basement. We could hear a good deal of noise coming from below. We passed the elderly woman making her painful way down the stairs one step at a time, and I asked if she wanted an arm to lean on. To my surprise, she said that would be a great help.
As we made our slow way down the stairs, I heard my daughter walk into the room and say "Hi" in a loud voice with the high pitch and long "i" so many woman raised in the South have. Just as we reached the bottom landing, a young girl stuck her head out the door.
"You do know you are coming in the wrong door don't you? This one is for girls," she said.
After hastily beating a retreat back up the stairs and down a set of identical stairs on the other side of the house, I walked into a room full of men. The entire basement was one room with a curtain that divided the room unevenly with about two-thirds of the room on this side of the curtain and the other third on the other side, which I assumed, held the women.
Jillian texted, "Where r u?"; "other side of curtain" I replied. The room had a number of rows of chairs and at the front was a table gaily decorated with what looked like red-checkered tablecloth.
My professor friend joined me, and with my heart in my throat, I realized he didn't have his shoes on. "Oh my God," I thought. "I have unknowingly offended my friends for the second time tonight." But then I noticed that everyone else had his or her shoes on. I pointed at his stocking-covered feet and raised an eyebrow, and he leaned in conspiratorially and said, "I thought we were supposed to take our shoes off." It turns out that you do take off your shoes when you enter the Prayer Hall portion of the mosque, but not necessarily elsewhere.
The ceremony began with little fanfare. Suddenly the table at the front of the room was occupied, and we were called to order. Sitting at the table, from left to right was Abdullah's father, Abdullah, the man who conducted the service, the bride's father and the bride. Abdullah and his father were wearing white cassock-looking robes, the officiate was wearing slacks and a button-down blue shirt open at the collar, and the bride's father was wearing a different sort of cassock and also a turban. The bride, Janna Aziz, was beautifully adorned in white from head to toe with only her face and hands showing. Not a traditional western dress but one with a Mideast flair, cinched at the waist so there was some form to her figure. Her smile, which she could not contain, shown as white as her dress.
The ceremony was brief. The officiant gave a brief monologue on marriage, and then there was an exchange of statements, first in English and then in Arabic, between Abdullah and the bride's father. Then it was over.
The bride and groom stood up and shook hands (yep, shook hands), and then Abdullah kissed her on the forehead. She headed to the women's side of the room, and that was the last I saw of her.
We lined up to hug and congratulate Abdullah and then went outside for a meal of lamb and rice and some curry dish that was to die for along with mint tea. Jillian again texted "where r u?"; "in the backyard eating dinner where r u"; "in the mosque eating dinner can I come out?"; "sorry, no other women here, just men."
Eventually, it was time to leave. Abdullah told me that he too had to leave soon to join his study group as he had a huge statistics test the next morning. I just looked at him, and he said, "Yeah, I know, poor planning."
Abdullah's father had insisted that I take some leftover food with me, and I caught up with Jillian at the front of the house. As we walked back to her apartment, I considered Abdullah's wedding, comparing it with a modern American wedding, which can be more like a coronation than a wedding, and the contrast was striking. Abdullah's simple words surrounded by friends and family and his pledge to the bride's father to take care of her resonated with me. I liked the unpretentiousness of the ceremony (Abdullah told me that the reason he and his father wore the robes was because they didn't want to pay the money to rent tuxedos). My heart was full.
Watching two young people launch their lives together is a special gift from them, and it just didn't seem to matter whether they were Christian or Muslim.