At 9:30 a.m. the temperature hovered around 95F/35C.
The sun beat down on the pavement and reflected so brightly that we were squinting, under our sunglasses. Hannah and I wore our most covering clothes: she, her birthday tunic and pants from Vietnam, I, my new ankle length white skirt that Tony got me for Christmas, to replace the one I lost in the bat fiasco. With my black tank shirt and my long sleeve tunic style, “Wat shirt,” over that.
Sweat ran in rivulets between my shoulder blades and trickled down the center of my back.
We talked about mosques as we walked, remembering the baked clay one in our town in Tunisia and recalling the pleasantness of waking to sung prayers years ago in the north of Africa. There are things about Muslim countries that we now find comforting, and home like, even though we are infidels.
There are two big mosques in Bandar Seri Begawan.
The Jame Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque is only about a mile and a half from our hotel. It is an imposing structure, built for the Sultan’s silver jubilee. The entire exterior is decorated in tiny blue and white mosaic tiles that culminate in beautiful shining gold domes covered with more tiny gold tiles. We removed our shoes and Hannah and I donned the requisite thick black robes provided for non-muslim women, in spite of the fact that we were covered from neck to heels and shoulder to finger tip, already. The marble floors felt deliciously cool on the bare soles of our feet as we explored the ablution rooms and peeked into the two cavernous prayer halls. Thousands of tiny prayer rugs were lined up in a perfect grid waiting for kneeling supplicants to face Mecca and perform the ancient rituals of prayer to Allah.
The stained glass domes within the building are simply stunning. The outside world melts away in the insulated silence of stone walls and the quiet rush of water dripping over marble fountains and into clear blue pools. Islam is many things, in many different places. It is easy to see how Brunei’s motto, The Abode of Peace, has been interpreted through religion.
Hannah says that the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque looks like a giant sandcastle. A gold gilt one at that. The onion domes are the centerpiece of downtown and its position on the water means that from land or rive, it’s a focal point. Of course we donned our black choir robes, and obediently stayed on the square of brown carpet reserved for the unbelievers. I
t’s said that this thought to be one of the most beautiful mosques in Southeast Asia. It’s pretty, but not as nice as the one we visited first. The stained glass windows that flank the enormous round prayer chamber reminded me of the Byzantine churches I was in last winter in Ukraine. I wondered aloud how both churches and mosques ended up with similar aspects to their houses of worship. “Intention,” Tony winked, making reference to a friend’s recent introduction of Transpersonal Psychology to our thinking.
I couldn’t help but ask on the way out, what the e-Islam kiosks were all about. We saw them in both mosques, standing in the common area. “Those are for fast looking up of information about Islam,” the attendant told us, with a smile. “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” He added, joyfully. We haven’t had one western face around to wish us Merry Christmas, but he’s the second Muslim who has happily done so. It was a really touching gesture, reaching across culture and religion, and a generous thing for him to offer.
He watched as Hannah and I peeled off the heavy black cloaks and replaced them, with our sweat added to the sweat of countless other women, on the hangers provided.
There are many philosophical objects in the way of my conversion to Islam, but if I were ever to do so, it would have to be in a much cooler country, perhaps Iceland, or northern Canada, but I don’t think their mosques could measure up.