Typically when moving to another country you experience some culture shock. Adjusting to the new social norms of the new place you are calling home. Now I am not going to say that I did not experience any culture shock, because driving on the roads here is quite a shock, but the area I expected to experience it the most was in the way the way everyday life was different.
Growing up in a middle-class Christian home in Texas, I was aware of prejudice that permeates the south when it comes to people who are different from the majority. My parents did a great job of making sure that my brothers and I were taught to be tolerant of those who are different and to not jump to conclusions about someone without first getting to know them a little. “To each their own” is a saying I heard a lot growing up.
With that background I was still a little wary moving to the Middle East. I am my mother’s daughter and did as much research on the area I was moving to as I possibly could. This helped me in more ways than one. I am old enough to remember September 11, 2001 and I pay attention to the news, so moving to a Muslim country was a little daunting, but I relied on the teachings my parents instilled in me.
There is a place here is Kuwait that is called the AWARE Center, it is the Advocates for Western-Arab Relations. They offer many different ways for westerners to become immersed in and accustomed to the country and culture. One of the things they offer is a tour of the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City. Wanting to get a look at the largest mosque in Kuwait and to get some insight into Islam, James and I decided to go take the tour.
Now I had just the barest understanding of Islam from classes in grade school and a world religion class I took in college. But this tour was an eye-opening experience to how similar the major religions of the world are.
Before starting the tour all of the women were checked to make sure that we were wearing appropriate clothing to go inside the mosque. Much like dressing up in your nice clothes for church on Sunday, we needed to be covered modestly. If the women were wearing pants or their clothing was too tight the mosque provided long black cloaks for them to wear during the tour, as well as a head scarf if they did not bring their own. (As you can see I brought my own to wear).
We were walked through the outside of the mosque and shown where the overflow prayer area was. You can see line across the picture above, those are a sprinkler system that can be turned on to cool off those who are praying in the courtyard. This mosque experiences high volumes of worshipers during the holy month of Ramadan, and not everyone can fit inside. Because of the high temperatures here in the desert, the mosque provides the sprinklers to keep the people cool during prayers.
When we made our way inside the mosque our guide explained the architecture of the building and where the different pieces came from. Italian marble, chandeliers from Germany, wood from India, French design of the ceiling.
We stopped before entering the prayer room to take off our shoes, and then we stepped into the main prayer room. I have been inside many churches and cathedrals and always feel and sense of peace. In some more than others I have felt as if God is there in the room. When I walked into the prayer room I had the same feelings. You could tell it is a holy place.
Our guide was wonderful and answered many questions for our group.
Why are men and women separated during prayers? To help everyone focus on their prayers and not create any distractions. She joked about the reason women are either at the back or completely separate because it could be distracting to have a woman bending and kneeling in front of a man.
Why face all the same direction during prayer? All Muslims face the direction of Mecca during prayer no matter where they are in the world. This is to remind each that they are one, one prayer focused toward one point praying to one God.
I asked about the writing in the center of the ceiling. It is the 99 names of God. I found this to be a beautiful representation that many names can be used for one entity.
Our guide also talked about the similarities between Christianity and Islam. That there are people in both religions that are seen as holy and respected in both. Mary the mother of Jesus is described as a favorite of God and holy among all women. Moses and Abraham are leaders and teachers.
She described that one of the differences between beliefs about Jesus is that Christians believe he died on the cross and rose again, while Muslims believe that Jesus did not die on the cross but was raised up to heaven alive.
We then got to go into the Amir’s room, which is where the Amir can greet and entertain guests from other countries before or after prayer. In the middle of the room was a beautiful copy of the original Quran. I find it amazing that the holy book has not been through so many translations that definitions differ, and that all Muslims learn Arabic to be able to read the Quran in its original form.
We have an English translation of the Quran, and I began to read through it after our tour of the Grand Mosque. Some of the things that I learned in my reading are that the name that Muslims use for God (Allah) is used because it cannot be made into other words, like god or goddess. I also found the translations for the words Muslim and Islam. In the preface to our English translation Islam is the combination of the Arabic words salm (peace) and silm (submitting one’s will to Allah). Muslim literally translates to one who submits their will to Allah. So if you anyone who submits your will to Allah (God) you are by definition a Muslim.
Living in a Muslim country and being able to understand the religion a little deeper has given me the opportunity to look at my own beliefs. I have never felt unwelcome and have never had anyone push their ideas of their religion upon me here. Many will offer pamphlets to you and ask if you have any questions, but mostly they live their religion everyday.I enjoy hearing the call to prayer five times a day because it is a nice reminder to take a moment and pray, even if it is just a quick “Thank you for letting me wake up to a beautiful new day”.
So my culture shock was not what I thought I was going to experience. I realize that our two cultures are more similar than they are different. It has been easy to adjust to everyday life here and I love finding out new things. Are the social norms different? Yes. Are they difficult to learn and accommodate? Not if you have an open mind! Making sure to be open-minded and tolerant while traveling or moving to a new country is what I would deem the most important thing to have. A new place is not like where you came from and to try to make it so is an insult to the new culture and people you will encounter.