I stared blankly at my sandal and the clumps of human feces it had tracked onto the water taxi. The taxi walla was speaking rapid-fire Bengali at me, obviously displeased. I looked around for something with which to clean this mess. The boat was immaculately clean, a woven reed mat, on which I was to sit, was in the center of the boat, but there was nothing else aside from the walla himself and his oar. I looked back to the shore and the wooden plank I had used to board the boat, one end perched up by a cinder block, the other half-disappearing into the moist black sand. I followed the trail of feces back down the plank to the shore and saw the pile I had stepped in. I assumed it was human based on how many people I had seen squatting near the shore.

I looked back to the walla; he just stared at me waiting for me to do something. I scooped some water from the river and splashed it onto the wooden planks of the boat, trying to dislodge the mess without touching it. This removed some of the larger bits, but I could see most of it had stuck into the grain of the heavily weathered planks. With a grimace, I used my left hand to wipe away what I could, using as much water as possible. I cleaned the boards and the guilty sandal. The walla appeared satisfied, so I took off my sandals and sat on the reed mat.

It was my third day in Dhaka. The constant greetings and invitations to tea I had gotten from every man I encountered as I had wandered the streets of the Chowkbazar, had been wearing on me. Invariably, everyone had been friendly; I just wasn’t used to this much attention. At one point, I had stopped to reload some film and after a few moments absorbed in that process, had looked up to find myself surrounded by two dozen people all staring at me. Apparently, Bangladeshis are not used to seeing many foreigners. As a diversion, I had decided to cross the Buriganga river by one of the many bridges to the opposite, southern shore.

Rickshaws

The south shore had seemed a real contrast to the northern one which was adjacent to the city. While the north side was crowded with shops, shopkeepers and rickshaws, the south side appeared to be where the people lived. It was packed with makeshift houses with corrugated steel roofs and people washing clothing in the river. I had taken a few photos of some children and a man repairing a boat before I had decided to take the water taxi back to the north shore.

I payed the taxi walla and stepped onto the shore and into the frenetic chaos of the market. It was Friday and I was heading to the Lalbagh Fort which contained the Quilla Mosque. I wanted to be there in time for the midday prayers. I was in a hurry, dodging numerous rickshaws, and trying to avoid as many conversations as possible – most Bangladeshis are very well-spoken and love to show off their English skills to their friends. Before long, I found myself at the gates of the fort, the grounds filled with locals all enjoying their day off, some walking in the sunshine, others resting in the shade of trees. Half-empty fountains became playgrounds for children. The women wore brightly colored saris, with the occasional woman in an all black burqa. Most of the men wore very sombre western shirts and pants, but some wore the lungi, a traditional skirt.

Lalbagh Fort

It was still half an hour before prayer time, so I wandered the grounds, looking at the various buildings of the fort. As usual I attracted more attention than I really wanted, but everyone was very kind. I made my way toward the mosque and stepped under the awning which provided shade for the worshippers in the courtyard. Already, the faithful were gathered in large numbers. Several people greeted me. I enquired if it was OK for me to be there and they indicated that it was. I sat down next to a middle-aged man with a grayish white beard, who quickly introduced himself to me, Mr. Habibur Rahman. He was the custodian for the fort and mosque and it would later seem to me rather providential to have met him. He encouraged me to stay for the prayers, and assuaged my con- cerns about my not being “clean,” that is not having performed wudhu, or ablutions, which are required of all Muslims prior to prayer. Thinking back to the incident on the boat, I felt particularly bad since I had not had a chance to wash my left hand properly. He led me through the mechanics of the prayers, the standing and prostrating, the repeating of Allahu Akbar. ‘God is great.’

Afterwards, I had some time to explain my project to him. He was rather excited and insisted on introducing me to the Imam, Mr. Anisur Rahman along with several others. A lively discussion in Bengali ensued, presumably about me. The result of this conversation was Mr. Habibur inviting me to lunch. He led me to his office which was attached to his residence on the grounds. I asked to use his bathroom. I have never been happier to see a bar of soap. His wife, dressed in a colorful sari, proceeded to serve us tea followed by rice and several vegetable and fish dishes. We ate with our hands, right hands only, since the left hand is always considered unclean. I smiled as I realized that I had never completely understood the concept before. He showed me how it is acceptable to drink with the left hand (since the right hand is covered with food while eating) by awkwardly touching the glass to the right hand as you drink. He also indicated how to wipe the plate clean using your fingers in the manner of Muhammad. He was very kind and seemed to enjoy educating me in the ways of his culture.

He was busy after lunch, so he had one of his staff show me around the fort grounds. This man had keys to all the locked areas and showed me inside tombs and underground vaults. After a few minutes, we had a procession of curious locals following behind us. One particularly forward young man wordlessly took me by the hand, interlocked his fingers with mine, and followed my escort. He didn’t say a word, but was beaming a perfectly white smile. I was thankful when, half an hour later, I saw Mr. Habibur waiting for me ahead. I managed to take my hand back and said my goodbyes to everyone who had gathered.

It was getting close to time for the sunset prayers and Mr. Habibur led me back to the mosque and had another member of his staff lead me through the ablutions. I had done them before, but had forgotten the details, so I was grateful to have someone to guide me. We washed our hands three times, rinsed our mouths three times, cleaned our nostrils three times, washed our faces three times, washed our arms up to the elbow three times. Then we passed our hands over our hair and neck, but only once. Then we washed our feet three times. I wondered at the significance of the number three. We entered the mosque and I was joined by Mr. Habibur who, again, led me through the prayers. As I was going through the motions, I reflected on what he had told me earlier during one of our conversations. “Every time I pray, it is like my last prayer. Azrael, the Angel of Death is behind me. Heaven is above and Hell below. I have a good angel on my right and a bad one on my left. I am naked before my Creator.” I wondered how it would feel to have such convictions.

After the prayers, most of the people left. Some remained and gathered around the Imam near the front of the mosque. I was led to the very front and told to sit down inside the mirhab (the niche in the wall facing Mecca) and was sitting behind the Imam as he proceeded to give a sermon in Bengali. I didn’t know what he said, but it seemed that it must have been pretty light-hearted as it was punctuated by occasional laughter from the small audience. I sat listening to the sing-song sound of the language and staring out the arched doorways at all the brightly dressed people outside in the last rays of the sun. What a contrast between this quiet, peaceful place and the bustling bazaar just outside the gates.

Periodically, men would enter the mosque and silently pray by themselves before joining the group to listen to the Imam. One man entered, talking on a cell-phone, wearing jeans and an AC-DC T-shirt. When his call ended, he too prayed and then joined the group. The sermon lasted about 45 minutes until the sun had completely set. The Imam then led everyone through another prayer followed by another five minute sermon.

Afterwards, he introduced me in English to the group and asked me to explain my project to them. I explained how I had saved money for many years and then set out traveling through the Muslim world, how I had decided to write a book about my experiences in an effort to promote peace through understanding. A man in the audience translated my words into Bengali for those who didn’t speak English well enough to understand. There were many questions at the end: “How is Islam represent- ed in your country?” “Have you considered converting to Islam?” “What do you think of George W. Bush?” I answered them as best I could. Everyone was very friendly and appreciated my answers, but I still felt a bit of guilt by association, like I was a representative of the West who understood very little about their culture or religion and yet seemed to judge them in one way or another.

When I was finished, the Imam spoke to the group in Bengali for another five minutes. I am not sure what he said, but I guess that he wished me good luck. There were several Alhamdulillah’s (praise be to God) from the group. One man approached me with tears in his eyes and wordlessly hugged me. Another man told me that he thought what I was doing was even more important since I wasn’t a Muslim.

I said my goodbyes to everyone and walked with the Imam and Mr. Habibur to the gate. There, they arranged a rickshaw for me back to my hotel. I climbed onto the seat and waved goodbye to them. It was dark as my rickshaw driver pedaled through the crowded streets, ringing his bell and dodging nearly unseen pedestrians. My mind was a swirl of emotions. I felt very inspired by the enthusiasm of all the people I met, but at the same time, I did not feel worthy of their respect. I mulled my thoughts as my driver sweated in the cool evening air.

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