From a mosque to an Arabian party, in Christchurch, New Zealand

Going to a local mosque in Christchurch was a surreal experience. But I guess that’s because I had never imagined I’d be doing it. For a start, I’d never considered that the local Muslim community, in what was always the most English of cities, would be large enough to support one.

 Apart from visiting the grand mosques in the Middle East and North Africa, such as those in Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, and the greatest and the most splendid of them all, the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with its Swarovski crystal chandeliers, white marble, and enormous hand woven Iranian carpet, I’d never attended a service in a mosque. This, despite the fact that I’d lived and worked in the Middle East for over eight years. I’d heard the call to prayer every day, sometimes several times and that was enough.

 I arrived at the mosque just after noon on a Friday, the Islamic “holy” day, slightly earlier than arranged and telephoned “Mr” Abdelfattah. I had become accustomed to addressing most Arabs with a title in front of their Christian name and it was a habit that was hard to break. He was a Palestinian who had moved to New Zealand as an economic migrant some 15 years earlier.

 While waiting for him to turn up, I sat on the fence outside, chatting with Syed from Somalia, who was wearing the traditional long grey-green robe, more frequently worn by Pakistani men. He said he was 17, had finished high school and had been helping at the Homework Centre at Hagley College, making use of the several languages he spoke. He was now learning to become a builder at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CIT)- now the Ara Institute of Canterbury. I didn’t have time to ask what had brought him to New Zealand before Mr Abdelfattah arrived.

 He introduced me to his “sister”, Husna from Bangladesh, who was the leader of the “sister community”. She in turn introduced me to the other women worshippers. Before entering the mosque, I donned the headscarf that I had brought with me and removed my shoes (placing them on the shoe rack outside), as is the Muslim tradition. I then greeted the other women who were congregating in a room quite separate from that of the men.

 In the nearly two hours I was there, some 30 women and children entered the mosque. Husna told me she had been in New Zealand for 25 years, arriving with her husband, Farid, who had sought political asylum.

 There was also Muna from Kuwait who had moved to New Zealand about 10 years earlier with her New Zealand husband, an accountant whom she had met in Kuwait. After marrying and living in Kuwait for nine years they decided to move back to New Zealand. Muna was keen to press upon me that most New Zealanders are tolerant, willing to learn about other cultures and are very good listeners.

 Other women also hailed from Malaysia, Somalia, Egypt, Morocco, Fiji, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The service was in English, even though most people only spoke a smattering of the language. But it made sense I guess. I’d just imagined the service would be in Arabic.

 I was also concerned that my cell phone would ring. But this was something I didn’t need to be worried about because Husna’s went off first, and no one worried about that.

 At the end of service, in the prayer room, one of the women was even selling samosas- beef ones - that I assumed had been made with halal meat. This, I was told, was difficult to find in New Zealand. Not because it wasn’t killed the Islamic way, but because it wasn’t labeled as such.

 The atmosphere in the mosque was surprisingly relaxed, more so than it would have been in the Arab world, I suspected. So something of the New Zealand way of life had rubbed off, even in the most traditional environment, I thought.

By the time I left the mosque two hours later I’d received several invitations. The first was to a party the following evening- Saturday – at the home of an Iraqi family whose 16-year daughter was returning to Baghdad. While she wanted to study in Iraq, her mother told me it was also too expensive for her daughter to study at a university in New Zealand. As a foreign student, it would cost $38,000 a year.

 I guess that’s an indication of what the new funding structures in New Zealand mean for international students. I did wonder though whether $38,000 would be a small price to pay to be away from all the bombings and killings in Iraq.

The party was in the basement of a typical suburban brick and roughcast house in Avonhead and started about 6.30pm. It was fun. But a number of things surprised me. For a start, I’d assumed that it would be “mixed”. I was wrong. It turned out that women and children gathered separately from the men to celebrate, just as they would in Arabia. There were women from all over the Arab world, and only a handful spoke English.

Without the presence of men (except for very young males, many of whom were born in New Zealand) the women felt comfortable removing their abayas (a loose robe-like dress) and hijabs (or head scarfs) and dancing to music, even belly dancing. An exception was a Jordanian woman who was wearing an outfit so traditional - a long brown robe with embroidered sleeves and a headscarf- that it could have been directly shipped in from Jordan.

The women from Saudi Arabia, of which there were quite a few, probably stood out the most, several wearing very frilly and somewhat “over-the-top” dresses, made from chiffon and satin, in shades of red, yellow and pink. Some even wore imitation princess-like tiaras that were more Barbie-like than New Zealand-like.

 They also wore very high heels, which is something Arab women tend to have a penchant for, especially Louboutins and Jimmy Choos. On this occasion though I don’t think the women were wearing these brands, although the overall look was the same.

Typically, too, Arab women are highly manicured, and at this party they did not disappoint. Absent, however, were the overly plucked and penciled-in eyebrows that are so popular in the Arab world.

 Among the few correct assumptions I’d made was that the party would be alcohol-free. Alcohol is non-sharia, or non-Islamic, and hence harem, or forbidden. So here was a party far-removed from a normal New Zealand one, where frivolity and flirtatiousness often go hand-in-hand with drinking.

 Another assumption I’d made was that there’d be a lot of food. There was. It comprised a typical Middle East mezze, with pita breads, kebabs, moutabbal, tabbouleh and fouttoush followed by deserts such as figs and nuts. There was no Um Ali though- the Middle Eastern version of bread pudding- and my personal favorite.

 The party ended abruptly, at about 10pm. At this point most women put on their warm coats and again donned their headscarves, before stepping outside into the crisp, early autumnal air and driving away in their vehicles.





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Sunday, 23 February 2020