Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Well into a Muslim country such as Mali, I would have expected to find life drastically altered on account of this ninth month of the lunar year. Certainly life has quieted (aside from the call to prayer which seems to have lengthened and amplified in sound). People are driven inside particularly when the sun is out on account of the fasting which bans drinking fluids and even swallowing one’s saliva. So I decided to fast as well for a number of reasons, mainly just to see what life's like for millions of people on this Earth right now. I have to say, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s a good conversation topic, it’s cozy eating around the communal bowl under the stars and then going back to bed, and I love getting special treatment at the end of the day when the fast is broken. We break it with some hot tea made with fresh local leaves, fried dough balls, porridge, followed by a main course. After the first day, I was told that to fast and not pray was pointless. So, I learned how to pray as well. With just the Fatiha, one surat of the Koran, its possible to pray as a Muslim. I learned the seven Arabic lines, and the rest was simple; the correct way to perform ablutions, how to dress, kneel, touch one’s head to the ground, etc.

I can only admit to adhering strictly to the traditions for one day. I woke up at 3:40am to eat, went back to sleep at 5am, was rudely awoken at 6:30am to pray again. Went back to bed, woke up at 8am to bike to work. Prayed at 2:00 and 4:30, then biked an hour back home. Broke fast around 6:45pm, prayed at home immediately after, and again around 7ish. The final prayer of the day involved me getting dressed in traditional African dress + head covering, going to mosque with some friends, and performing 17 cycles of prayer (that’s touching my head to the ground 34 times). I’d like to note that I had asked a couple imams before that day if it was disrespectful to pray and go to mosque even though I wasn’t Muslim. Their response was to the contrary.

So I was a strict Muslim for a day, which reminds me how I’ve also played the part of a Sufi and Rastafarian. Ok, I didn’t do anything Rastafarian like, except give in to a couple friends insisting on braiding my hair. It took 10 hours over three days to braid the two meters of black fake hair into my own. One of the more painful experiences of my life. I tore it all out after two weeks in a moment of fury due to the itchiness – and lost half my head of real hair along with it. Anyway, everyone in town loved it, ‘it made me look beautiful.’ Incorrect. And it's not a question of subjectivity. I looked like an aged Rasta man.

ok, here's proof:

As for the Sufi role...Sufism is a mystical version of Islam. I encountered it first in Turkey, and I believe the mainstream image of Sufism is of whirling dervishes on the Anatolian plateau. I was thus excited to learn Sufism was practiced in Mali as well. I’d been told a Sufi chief lived just outside my town so one day I decided to pay a visit. He lived in a cave and hadn’t left the immediate area for 13 years. For 7 of those years, he was supposedly solitary. But he had since gathered a following and it had developed into a Sufi camp. I found the camp after a 30 minute stroll over flat-faced rocks with views of the Niger. I met the chief, seated on a mat in front of the cave, surrounded by young pupils and stacks of Korans. It would have perfectly fit my image of some tribal area on the blurred border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for the cell phones and large cylindrical flourescent bulb fitted to the rock face (powered by car battery).

Anyway, the chief was dressed in white shreds of cloth and had a great head of dreads. Very friendly, unassuming guy. He invited me to join their prayer session so I followed him into a fairly large cave where 30+ men sat on sheepskins with Koranic verses in hand. The chief sat at the back of the cave and the prayer commenced. Every man was reading the verses so fast that a hypnotizing hum rose in the air. It was stifling hot inside the cave. Sweat was pouring down from under my scarf-clad head. The chief appeared to be in his own altered state of consciousness, prayer beads in hand, dazed, his head kept dropping as though he was falling asleep, the boy standing next to him fanning him with increased fervor. At varying intervals, a man would shout something and everyone crossed their arms across their chests and touched their foreheads to the ground. I’ve been back a couple times since, but just to greet the chief and his wife in particular…we’ve taken a liking to each other...or maybe she just has me in mind as the future wife of her son.

More on the month of Ramadan...
On the 10th day, began a special part of the holiday known as Sala wali wali. Not completely sure of the significance, but for three nights the streets were teeming with gangs of children. Female groups carried a simple traditional instrument – a calabash set like a half dome over a bucket of water and a stick to drum with. At each house, they would hold a short performace and, in return, were given some spare change or dry couscous. Male groups went around with their faces painted white, large sticks in hand, and gave slightly more dramatic performances. One group arrived at my doorstep dressed in drag, the plump little boy leading the song and dance was dressed as a pregnant woman. I normally never give money out, but this particular kid made me laugh so hard I thought at least he'd earned it. All in all, I’d say this was the closest equivalent I’ve seen of Halloween outside of the US, except by the third night some of the older groups had become so competitive that fights broke out in passing. Then again, I’m sure I socked my brother once over a pack of Smartie's.

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