Amal, a Syrian in Fremont, said her cousins, uncles and aunts had all died in Raqqa, Syria. The elderly woman sighed repeatedly and spoke in quick Arabic without pause, squeezing her prayer rug between Farida, an Iranian refugee, and me.
It was Friday prayers at Fremont’s Islamic Society of East Bay, and Amal was one of 50 women in a segregated room at the mosque. Farida was a Shiite in a Sunni space – she walked an hour to reach the mosque, the closest Muslim prayer hall to her home. She didn’t own a car or know English. She asked me in Farsi if she’s welcome to pray here.
“Will people stop me?”
“I don’t think so. You should be able to pray where you wish,” I replied.
I had no idea what mosque policy was but this was the U.S., and discrimination should not be allowed.
I’m a Farsi-speaking Afghan from a Sunni background, but I was there doing a story about mosque members dragging each other to court using donor money for the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Amal, Farida and I had just met, yet the two women clung to me. Amal needed an interpreter and a sympathetic listener. Farida needed guidance and encouragement. I wasn’t sure I could help them.
A brazen Amal demanded I translate the English sermon. In my rusty Arabic, I told her the mosque was looking for volunteers to donate blood and for money to improve the mosque. She pointed to her arm willing to be a blood donor and fished out $20 from her purse for donations. She asked no questions when she dropped the money in the donation box being passed around.
The money was from her social security check. “We have to help the mosque,” she said. “It’s a good deed.”
The invisible man with the voice asking for donations seemed as passionate and determined as Christian evangelicals on TV. We heard him on a loudspeaker. Some Muslims believe men and women must pray in different rooms.
“You will be rewarded by God with the money you give the mosque,” he said.
I remembered an earlier interview with Atif Mahmud, the filmmaker of Unmosqued, a critical documentary about America’s mosques.
“The leaders are guilting people to pay donations, and selling pieces of heaven to convince them,” Mahmud said.
Farida looked in her wallet. She only had $2. She decided to keep it for bus money. “I can barely pay my rent,” she said, her face was flushed.
Neither of the women knew the money might go to more court battles between board members to pay for legal fees.
Then we stood to pray, facing north, all in one line, staring at a wall. The men were privy to the bigger room with the pulpit and an imam who lead prayers.
Farida watched me fold my arms across my chest but Shiites pray with their arms hanging to their side. She stood still, wavering, afraid that if she left her arms to her side, Sunni worshipers would judge. The sectarian battles in the Middle East where millions have been slaughtered had instilled a fear among Muslims. Crossing boundaries even in America was a risk. But I wanted to reassure her that it was safe.
I put one hand on my chest and left one arm to the side, then smiled in her direction. She stopped fidgeting, dropped her arms as we both began the prayer in unison.
After six months of research, many Friday prayers and dozens of interviews, my story was published. You can read it here: