The Blue Mosque
by Leah Lax
I know her face, a round moon framed in white cloth, hair hidden. Her skin is perfect cream without a drop of sunlight, with the studied reserve dreamers call serenity. She’s a covered woman with an indoor life, although she’s still a girl. Demure and soft, drapes and scarves. I remind myself I don’t really know her. My own past as a different sort of covered woman has nothing to do with her, but still I imagine the very walls of her home a euphemism for chapped hands and rising at dawn. Of course, her life may be gentle, but then again, it may not be.
Myself, I’m just a tourist among thousands passing through in an enormous mix of oglers and the faithful to, well, ogle Istanbul’s opulent Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque, with its six minarets, pointed arches and soaring domes in gorgeous patterned blue tiles—just doing what travelers have done for four hundred years. It’s free; we didn’t have to buy a ticket for this one, and so we made our way across the cobbled courtyard around to the side of the main dome past a sign sporting tall graphics posted by the Islamic Board that detail the requirements of modest dress for men and for women. Then we crouched our way into the mosque through a low rough-cut stone tunnel. The passage bowed our heads to prepare us for awe and pulled us back hundreds of years. We emerged into this vestibule where this young woman with perfect skin is directing us females how to cover our hair and shoulders. But we really are just tourists, playing along, being good, when in Rome and all that. I’m no covered woman, not any more, although it seems I have to remind myself as I, too, pull out a wide scarf—mine has spidery black lines on smoky blue (we came prepared)—and wrap it around my head and neck under this endlessly innocent girl’s shy approving smile.
Everyone, male and female, takes off their shoes. My Susan’s face, my light, my moon, now floats in a circle of startling new drapery. We exchange appraising looks and wry smiles, a quick hand squeeze, and step across the brick threshold into the inner chamber of the Blue Mosque.
Designed by Sedefkar Mehmed Aga, student of the great architect Sinan himself (and probably inspiration of Michaelangelo) the vast interior of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque is filled with curved lines in flight. Rose and white checkered pointed arches rise and fall, rise and fall like a flock of two-colored birds in endless takeoff and landing, and it all glows in natural light. From inside, these opposing domes in perfect counter-stress look like poised bubbles trimmed in red and gold and glistening with quartz tiles, and we are inside them. Many of those quartz tiles are covered in abstracted blue tulips since the flower is seen as two open hands cupped in prayer. Tall stained-glass windows are set into the domes so that they look like trays of jewels in the sky.
A line of marble panels set into the outer walls become stone paintings of the nearby sea. Before them march of broad fluted columns with capitals elaborately tooled in ivory lace.
The floor is one big royal red prayer rug. Although the fourth of six daily prayer services just ended (we were not allowed in during prayers) a few men are still prostrated on the carpet far beyond the wooden bar that keeps us back. They stand and pray. Some crouch and put their foreheads down on the carpet, and they are all bathed in angled rays of tinted sunlight that streams through those jeweled windows.
On our side of the bar, people wander around as if feeding with their eyes. They murmur in Chinese, Turkish, English, Portuguese, Spanish, German. Shoulders are slack, eyes turned up, mouths hang open. My camera helps me zoom to the ceiling and bounce from corner to corner of patterned beauty, or sail trapeze-like up up to a certain filigree or piece of calligraphy or mosaic of colored glass. Meanwhile, Susan veers off to the side, pulls out her binoculars and lies down on her back on the carpet to examine the ceiling with her binoculars. Her body is a perfect still life of concentration.
I feel small in this enormous space, and young. Europe’s cathedrals and Asia’s towering Buddhas have the same effect on me. I guess the size and majesty of religious architecture is meant to diminish us, make us feel gob-smacked and unsteady before jaw-hanging confrontation with the vastness of ancient mystery.
I’m suddenly aware of all the people who have come here over hundreds of years. It seems as if all that awe and yearning has piled up here, a huge history of human needs and limitations, as if all that begging God year after year has seeped into the marble, columns, and tiles, and it’s all echoing, wailing, shrinking us before the inscrutable.
In my mind, I become a ghost of one of the faithful. I leap from keystone to capital, slide up the inner rib of the dome and perch to view the whole, then down to a prayer rug to crouch invisible among a thousand ghost men, forehead in front of knees, intoning words I don’t understand to a mysterious One God. Praying people become, in a way, naked in a place like this (oh, the irony of all those drapes of modesty). I think of the hundreds of years of vulnerability in this place. Maybe that’s why the tourists are whispering as if we’re in a hospital room.
But the real men are still praying and I’m staring at them. I look away. Has it been a few minutes or an hour? One seems to be finishing up. He pulls out his cell phone. The tenuous religious/secular balance here teeters, but holds for now. Taksim Square is two miles from here, a focal point in this city for demonstrations and counter-demonstrations over religion. Just outside on the cobbled walkway is the Egyptian obelisk where someone recently set off a bomb as part of that argument, killing eight or so of us tourists. The man pockets his phone and looks out at the tinted busy world, its commerce and discourse, perhaps readying himself.
But it seems I’ve missed something. I don’t want to go back outside onto the Roman hippodrome, lined with hawkers and carts selling roasted chestnuts and sahlep milk steamed with cinnamon and orchid root. What is it? I linger, wondering. Half-bored, I examine the wall behind the columns. I stroll along in my socks, aimless yet bothered somehow. Along this outer wall of this chamber is a series of huge old wooden doors. Each is different, but all have that dull steady gleam of long ago. I try a handle. It’s locked. Which somehow brings me back to the present. I think, I’m an outsider here. As a woman, maybe doubly so.
A woman. I could never have been one of those praying men who stood or bowed beneath this beauty while imagining the gold and elegance my personal symbol of Divine Glory. This would never have been my place. To be at all realistic (if I am ever) I should only imagine myself standing behind the crowd, praying among women somewhere out of men’s sight, somewhere back here keeping my voice at a whisper, and never immodestly prostrating myself.
Here’s my reflection in an outside window. To see my hair covered and body hidden for God as I had thought it never would be again! It was my own years under long clothes, living in terms of my husband and many children—my body an instrument to sustain the religion—that I projected onto that girl in the vestibule.
That’s what I missed. There must be a woman’s section.
The unimposing screen was easy to miss, even though there’s a sign on it in three languages: “Women’s Section.” Its lattice is just loose enough so the women can peep through to watch the men pray. The panels define a shadowed separate space under a low ceiling, which means that, from within, you can’t look up into the gorgeous dome. There’s a door in the screen. I try the knob. It’s open.
The space inside could hold perhaps a hundred women as they peek through the lattice at crowds of thousands, although I imagine up to two hundred have squeezed in, women hugging little girls in miniature veils or jiggling babies, elbowing friends, whispering comments into ears, or piously demonstrating prayers and nudging their daughters to the same. Whole lives lived in here.
Instead of expensive tiles, the low ceiling is painted, in purple and green vines, hanging over the same red carpeting. It’s a riot of color, and yet, compared to the glinting opulence of marbles and gold and hand-painted quartz tiles outside this screen, this space is austere. And empty—of furniture or the faithful, empty also of admirers. The light is low. I sit down on the worn carpet, cross-legged in scarf and stocking feet. I sit there a long time.
Here I am, a Jewish girl in an old mosque thousands of miles from home, and it all seems familiar. For over thirty years, week after week, I walked in modest dress to our Hasidic synagogue with my growing family, my body and every hair on my head carefully covered. At the synagogue I parted from my bearded husband and our older boys then turned with my daughters to our women’s section to sit behind just such a screen. Our women’s space was also a tiny percentage of whole place, also delineated by a screen with holes small enough to see and not be seen, also shallow and wide with the assumption that our chief occupation would be watching the men. But you had to be close to the screen to see through. From the other side, sometimes less humble less pious man dared approach close enough for a brazen gaze. I think, a women’s prayer section is a women’s prayer section. I used to settle in, take a well-worn prayer book and immerse myself in the cadence, song, and poetry of those haunting old prayers. A woman’s prayer chant is chiefly in the mind’s voice, the mind’s ear—we were not to raise our voices. Women’s voices are immodest. We whispered our prayers.
Unlike the men, God had not officially commanded us to pray, and so our participation was deemed voluntary, thus inessential. So some chatted quietly instead with friends they didn’t see all week. Others sped through the words in a whispered stream faster than the men and then rushed home to lay out the Sabbath meal before their family’s return. A few spoke their prayers in an ardent cutting kind of whisper, with stern eyebrows, while pointing out the place for a child in the prayer book. Our job, after all, was education, setting a foundation for Our People’s Future. I can almost hear that background noise of whispered chatter. Smaller children came and went. Babies kicked, laughed, fussed.
On the men’s side, a hazzan prayer leader led the “real” service in his unpolished tenor ,singing aloud over a hundred Hebrew pages most didn’t understand. The men droned along, stood, bowed, sat, or burst into decidedly non-Western tunes that were joyful, or mournful, or low and steady with solemn awe. Sometimes they clapped or danced. Sitting here in the Blue Mosque, I remember, I hear rhythm and song laced with awe all wafting in through the screen. But mostly the steady low sound of the men’s voices was our humbling backdrop, outside of our interior world, like rain.
But I could always breathe in here. I felt intimate relief in here, even comfort. I could come ostensibly for prayers and get to sit down among friends in spite of my busy life. Or I could sink into indulgent introspection, or dreams. Our prayer place was a warm cave, a refuge, where female friends that were my community wrapped around me like a human prayer shawl, or rather, one big encompassing veil. I think about that, how prayer in here is uniquely modest, feminine, intimate. On the most solemn of fast days, when even the women attended thoroughly to the service, the collective sound of whispering female voices in prayer was like wind in old leaves.
Looking back, I think, it wasn’t as if I was forced to step behind the screen. Modesty bred into me made me shudder to imagine myself out there among the men where space was open, voices full, and the dome soared up to God. That wasn’t my place.
Unless at some point you’ve been allowed, like the men, to take in the spirit of a broad beautiful place of worship, unless you’ve stood there at least once feeling I belong here, you don’t pay attention to the cutoff as a covered woman, if in here is all you’ve ever known. If you haven’t ever had all that beauty and privilege and status, you don’t know to miss being validated by what you believe to be God’s command. All of that may be a dream, but you don’t feel someone has stolen your dream. You don’t even know what that loss is, in a religion-dominated world, if you aren’t a man.
Except that I now have that freedom, and I was just out there five minutes ago. I am suddenly tearfully grateful for the disconnect, the rude anachronism, of being a tourist.
Because I’m not from here, I can see how small and dim and plain this Women’s Section is—can see what I couldn’t in my past. How trapped I would feel right now if I was forbidden to walk out that door into the real place, where beauty is like food. How quickly I would find the exit.
But I stay. I guess I’m listening for some resonance of women past, echoes of their whispers.
Step outside once and the view clarifies. Back when I was a covered woman, I had to fall in love with a woman to understand the great privilege of being different. Being “different” can sharpen your focus, lift away the nostalgic equalizing mist that can hang over a religious group and almost blind you.
In my mind, I lift my voice to the ghost women around me. I am not you, my covered sisters. I tell them. But then, not one of you is the same as the next. Why can’t you let yourselves be who you are instead of letting books or laws or men tell you who to be?
Rustling. In a vestibule just wide enough for one person that holds a tall mirror positioned to catch the light, there’s a veiled woman—it’s the young one who helped us cover ourselves. She’s looking at herself, examining her pearl face so carefully she doesn’t notice me raise my camera, adjust the focus, frame the shot. Is this a modesty check? Is it possible, please, that she’s captured by the image of a real person beneath the veil?
And then I launch up and out to a world that doesn’t only delineate space by male or female. I rush over to Susan. I was only in there a few minutes (is it possible?). I show her the photographs, burbling my thoughts. She puts down her binoculars and comes back with me because I don’t want to hold this view, this new/old memory, by myself. Scientist that she is, albeit in socks and a blue and white veil, she examines the screen, the walls, the carpeting inside the Women’s Section in her patient objective way—no accidental slip into her past or too deeply into the lives of others. She smiles, catches my hand. She says, “Let’s go.”