Mosque design is different from that of the Catholic churches one sees across Europe. While the Mosques outwardly are beautiful – integrating a distinctly Arab/North African architectural style, the insides are notably barren with the exception of a few prayer mats, and a line on the wall indicating the direction of Mecca. This is because inside ornament is considered blasphemous as it may distract from the business of Allah’s greatness. Where Catholicism seeks to awe the onlooker with ostentatious displays of grandeur, Islam is more modest. Jesus saves, Moses invests and Muhammad, apparently, economizes. The grand mosque in Niamey embodies this. One of the three oldest mosques in the world, the grand mosque is enormous – its outside splendor matched only by its Spartan interior.
Dedication of the Hajji
Boubecar pours the tea from pot to glass back to pot. This action is two fold – to cool the tea and to dissolve the sugar into it. The coals smolders beneath the starlight. He takes a sip, smiles and pours me a glass, the tea sufficiently tempered and sweetened. Boubecar has been telling me about how he has been saving up to go on the Hajj. The Hajj – or the ceremonial Muslim trip to Mecca is very important to Nigeriens. It is a pious status symbol of sorts – an indication that they have somehow arrived spiritually. While the Koran states that one should attempt to make the Hajj but once in a lifetime – many Nigeriens go as often as they can afford as a sort of spiritual one-upmanship. To able to be called a Hajji insures one a certain social standing, as after all it requires a certain social and economic standing to be able to make the Hajj to begin with. Boubecar boasts that his father has made the trip three times during his lifetime – all three by airplane – partially subsidized by the Saudi government, who now runs a sort of lottery amongst pious Muslims to determine who they will allow to make the voyage every year. Airline travel has made what was a once in a lifetime journey a potentially annual occurrence for those that can afford it.
Boubecar’s grandfather made the journey in the days before air travel. He traveled by camel, until his camel died by the Egyptian border, from which point he traveled on foot – working odd jobs as he went. All in all – the voyage took him four years; two to go and two to come back. When he came back, he was different – always strangely aloof. He had seen things in those four years – along that desolate stretch of the Sihel and then the Sahara that connects Niger to Algeria, and then to Lybia, Tunisia and eventually Egypt. That stretch north, through the Middle East – through desert and conflict before reaching Mecca – a city built in the Middle of the desert. Four years of starvation conditions and desiccating sunlight for a ceremony that takes three days and culminates with the hurling of rocks. Four years in which his family grew and changed without him. He came back changed – both as though he had achieved nothing and everything but spent. He came back though, and in some way, that was enough.
I sip my tea. It is good, a warming sweat feeling fills me as I look up at the night sky and at the thousands of stars that reduce us – that definitively let us know where it is we stand in the cosmic order of things, and I stifle a laugh.
The Tightening In its Miscellany
Islam in Niger is hardly the Sunni orthodoxy that one finds in the Middle East. It is a blend, a mélange of animist traditions and Islam, many of the practices of which are in violation of what the Koran itself reads. As Nigerien Islam has advanced in the last couple of decades, becoming an increasingly brittle ideology, and as a progressively younger population is brought up in the tradition, one senses a sort of cultural tightening. Many of these traditions have taken on very strange bents. For example, it is now considered blasphemous for a man to pee against the wall standing up, and this for reasons that no one can quite remember. Initially I had believed this practice to stem from the lack of public toilets and the pervasiveness of latrines but I was soon put straight after being accosted in a Niamey back alley by a Sheik with an axe to grind. What this means is that one sees, squatting in front of walls, boys trying to have a piss. Clearly there is now something semi-idolatrous about accidentally pissing on ones shoes – a reflection of vigor and conviction in these decidedly “hedonistic times”. Upon demanding which hadith or Koranic passage indicated that men should pea sitting down - I was refereed to some bit or other dealing with general cleanliness of person – which seems in some ways contradictory to the likely outcome of squatting and firing away, but who am I to argue with a sheik. I promised to try it his way next time, then held my breath before convulsing with laughter – doing Camus proud - as one must in the face of the absurd.
The Tightening in its General
Sufi Muslims – despite Niger having been famous for its Sufism – have begun to be curtailed and disparaged widely. Sufis are Islamic mystics, known in equal measure for their violations of Islamic scripture (such as their celebrated uses of wine and narcotics)s a means of achieving certain universal truths that they feel are not accessible through strict adherence to Sunni doctrine. Sufi’s though, despite being described as “Islamic Hippies” are no intellectual slouches, with many of the most important of Islamic skeptics and thinkers coming from some vain of the tradition. Now Sufis are condemned almost universally across Niger, there additions to the religion ignored in favor of Sunni orthodoxy or animalistic superstition – the latter of which has also been used to keep women from moving.
Women have also suffered greatly as a result of religious tightening. Sunni orthodoxy holds that women are not be educated. The roll of the women is to be kept – as some form of ornament. A woman, according to strict Sunni scripture is to be given that which she desires and is not supposed to work, as she should never have any reason to. What this has meant in practice throughout Niger has been a strong societal push towards insuring that women never leave the household, despite their having to work to keep the household afloat. Women spend hours before every meal pounding millet (which ironically robs the plant of much of its nutritional value), fetching water, and disciplining children, often while their husbands are away – often not working throughout non-agricultural seasons. Often times, non-existent Koranic passages are bandied about justifying this, though often they are derived from traditional social structures. Unlike Iran, which has the mitigating influences of both relative wealth and a traditional sense in Persian culture that demands women be educated, Nigerien women are increasingly domesticated and forced into servile rolls. This is the religious tightening in its most damnable. To watch as the literacy rate among women continues to decline in many poorer parts of the country – at a rate far greater than that of men is the most telling evidence of this. The cloistering of women and the requirement in the East of Niger that the chador be worn at all times, especially by married women – whom are considered to be the “property” of their husbands - where previously it had been a subject of choice go far to further illustrate this point. Desertification drives poverty, while poverty drives religious fanaticism. The more lush, eastern parts of the country remain the far more liberal socially and the most mellow religiously.
Ramadan Part 1
And then one day Ramadan was upon Niger. There was a sudden depletion of street food; and of life on the streets in general, a dramatic marker for the start of the Muslim month of fasting. Where there was a flood of vendors, now there is a trickle, largely foreigners, selling food to children and the few, proud hedonists who upon making a purchase, guiltily disappear with their comestibles, fearing community reprisal by the few hungry fasters who can bring themselves to go about their regular routines. People, weakened by lack of food and water stayed indoors as best they could. This is, of course, the harvest season - forcing people into the fields while systematically preventing them from consuming water. The Koran states that the fast can only be broken prior to sun down in cases in which one is driven so mad by dehydration that “they can no longer distinguish between a black and a white strand of thread that is held before their eyes.” Those that ventured into the streets look drained and tired – a look of hunger fills their eyes. This must be a triumph of will over human necessity. I am told that people begin to become habituated, or perhaps a better way to say it would be inured, to the effects after the first couple of weeks of Ramadan. But now, at the beginning, things are hardly bearable for most. People sit in their houses, the cooking pot ready, waiting for the sun to go down. Dinners are dashed off at a hectic pace, with enormous quantities of food cooked – much of it going to waste. People’s moods rarely improve following the breaking of the fast as they now are ill from overeating. Ramadan remains a charged time. Domestic disputes increase, and everyone seems to be yelling at each other all the time. Children are beaten, often savagely for minor infractions. Everyone is on edge, at least until time, and resignation take the immediate cut from the pains of hunger.
Ramadan Part 2
The mosques begin their call an hour earlier during Ramadan. It is important to give people the time to wake up and eat before the sun comes up and they must start their fast. The imams that work in the megaphones attempt to sing the traditional Islamic prayers. They do no understand Arabic well, forming sounds often without grasping the meaning of the words, and fail to harmonize well – leading to a tuneless jumble, punctuated by speaker static that periodically shifts musical tonalities. The speakerphone equipped mosques take on a new urgency. Ramadan represents one of the principle pillars of Islam. These are the sinews that the religion is fashioned from. The month of fasting remains crucial to the pious Muslim, as a mechanism to demonstrate his or her dedication to the faith. Mosque attendance soars, not only because of the increased aura of piousness, but also, because it is a good way to kill time while one is waiting for the sun to go down so that one can eat. There is an element of emptiness, wrought by hunger that the mosques try to feed through spirituality. The old wither. The end of Ramadan is said to be a time of renewal – both spiritual, and in the sense of routine. The renewal of life, or normalcy, and of the feeling of not quite togetherness - a lightheadedness that the fasting causes. Perhaps then, Muhammad renews.