11 December 2015

Visiting mosques

Photo: the Masjid e Umer in Queens Road E17

A couple of weeks ago two of our local mosques had a Sunday open day, and I went along to both. This came shortly after the shootings in Paris, but I’m not going to get into that. This is a design blog so let’s call this an architectural tour, and see where we go with that.

First up was Lea Bridge Road Mosque, which was once a 1930s factory/warehouse building, now given an impressive new brick facade with tall pointed-arch windows and little minarets on the corners. Although it only occupies a bit more than half the original building, it is spacious inside. You enter at the corner, into a dimly lit passageway. I walked in, wondering if I was really meant to be there - what about shoes, should I take my flat cap off? But I was soon spotted and given a friendly introduction to the large meeting space, laid out with information posters and edible goodies. No sign of any other visitors, although I did see some later. Shoes worn by everyone in this part. My guide explained a bit about this part of the mosque, asked if I’d ever visited one before (no) and about my religion (not really), and we had a bit of a laugh about Mini Holland. Had I read the Qur’an? (sort of, have it on my Kindle). Which translation? (quite an old one, biblical language unlike the modern versions). I asked about the music that was playing, did that play any part in religious ceremony, although I was pretty sure it didn’t. He explained about the various cultural differences, so some cultures use drums or maybe some percussion, others are opposed to music in any circumstances. There was definitely no ‘have you considered converting’. Feel free, he told me, look around, take photos if you like (I had my Pentax slung over my shoulder but didn’t really like to use it), tour coming up later.

The place opened in 1977 and has a well-worn feel, evidently well used and frequently full of people, as it was on this Sunday afternoon. The tour took in the new catering extension at the back, a quick look inside the prayer room at the front, a glimpse of the next door property owned by the mosque (so we don’t get any complaints). A room for consecrating marriages, and the mortuary complete with porcelain slab and a handy pile of coffins (“we don’t usually show people this”). It is quite unlike a church - more a comprehensive community centre. Upstairs, it’s shoes off, and I was given a chair at the back of the prayer room. A huge space, a forest of columns and lovely rich carpet patterned in bands that show where to stand, shoulder to shoulder. It must hold a couple of thousand people and apparently the place is often full, especially on Fridays. Little mirrored recesses in the ceiling reflect the carpet, a colourful kaleidoscope effect. The focus of the room is the wall of windows facing Lea Bridge Road, translucent glass with subtle shadows from the strings of lights swaying in the breeze outside, each outlined with colour-changing fairy lights, and in the centre is the imam’s marble-lined niche bathed in green light. The ceremony was brief, call and response in Arabic, accompanied by the well-known prostrations: all very calm and quite affecting. Some of the old guys get chairs and do token prostrations from a seated position, so I wasn’t the only one sitting. Without a pause, the speaker switched to English, reminding us of the ‘snappy new exhibition’ downstairs. I left the building with a weighty Qur’an and an even heavier book about Islam.

After that, a quick snack before my next visit to the Queens Road Mosque. The outside is a fairly plain buff-brick building with a decent-sized green dome and a minaret on top, hardwood doors and green metal windows, steps and railings leading up to the entrance. I waited in the lobby, explaining that my wife was coming too, so there was a bit of anticipation and more of a welcome than she expected, when she finally found the place. Unlike the last visit, here it is strictly no shoes once you get onto the grey carpet in the lobby. Rather more visitors in evidence here - a toddler skipped onto the grey carpet and was shooed back by anxious parents. I was expecting some tension about women covering their hair but that didn’t happen, whether or not by special dispensation for the day we didn’t find out.

Our guide explained that the site was once a synagogue which became disused as the Jewish population moved elsewhere. It was taken over as a mosque in 1981, then demolished and replaced with the new building which was completed in 2003. We talked a bit about the intricacies of planning permission, and the huge cost of excavating a basement, which was necessary to create enough space without going over the height restriction. The inside is noticeably clean and new-looking. The entrance has benches to sit on while you take shoes on or off, and a wall of cubbyholes to keep them in. That leads to a bright spacious staircase. Our guide showed us the main prayer room first, explaining the complicated electronic calendar of prayer times, which change daily according to sunrise and sunset times. He told us the place is packed on Fridays, with barely enough space even using all three floors, so sometimes the sessions are staggered, but on this occasion only the ground floor was in use. The decor in the prayer room, like the other mosque, is marble tiles and new-looking carpet patterned in bands. We were just in time for the next prayer session, and we were both allowed to sit in a side room open to the main hall.

Upstairs was set up as an exhibition, an extensive display of posters about Islamic culture, some artefacts and a demonstration of Arabic script writing. Down in the basement, a slide show (what did Bertrand Russell have to say about Islam? Bertrand Russell?) and lots of food. Lots of people too, men and women. Leaving after an hour there, we could hardly refuse the goodie-bag containing a different, more compact version of the Qur’an - so now we have one each, or two to compare translations.

Altogether a fascinating afternoon, maybe attracting mainly people who are already open-minded but definitely educational and demystifying. Thanks, people.