The Somali woman knelt on a shawl in the corner of my classroom and touched her hijab-covered head to the floor. Her muttered prayers were brief. Within minutes, the midmorning break ended and I resumed our English class.
During the break each day, I visited other classes to observe other Somali students at their prayer ritual. All faced the same direction – north.
Puzzled, I questioned one of my Somali students, a man named Mohammed. He spoke a little more English than the other students. “Why do you bow that way to pray, Mohammed?” I asked, pointing north.
“Mecca,” he said. “That way – Mecca.”
“Maybe in Somalia Mecca is that way – north.” I shook my head. “But here, in the middle of North America, that way is the direction of the North Pole. Here, Mecca is that way.” I pointed to the southeast.
Mohammed didn’t believe me. So I got out a world map. He acted as if he had never seen a map before. I tried to show him the direction to Mecca on a globe. He either didn’t understand or didn’t want to believe me.
It took several years, but finally our Somali immigrants changed the direction of their prayer prostrations.
As a writer of historical fiction, I research not only history, but also culture and religion. The storyline of my novel Lavash is told through two fourteen-year-old girls – one Armenian and one Turkish. In one scene, I describe Nazli, the Turk, and her Aunt Hatije kneeling on a dual-niche prayer kilim or rug.
When I received the critique from my cultural advisor on that section of my manuscript, my critiquer informed me that I had Nazli and Aunt Hatije bowing in the wrong direction. Since I had set the story in a town in central Turkey, Muslim adherents there would have been bowing to the southeast in 1915. I rewrote the scene.
Christians, on the other hand, believe that God is not only omniscient (all knowing), but also omnipresent (all-present, boundless). Christians aren’t tied to bowing toward Jerusalem or any other specific location. As Christians, Armenians and I can bow our heads to our Creator in any direction because God is everywhere.