It was cold and overcast on Thursday morning but there was almost no chance I would cancel the Understanding Religion field trip having spent weeks setting it up. Just before we left one teacher asked me if I thought we would need head scarves for the mosque. The thought of improvising 80 head scarves was a little alarming, but I decided it was the kind of thing the head of the mosque would have mentioned and remained outwardly calm.
We met most of the students at the front of the aquatic centre in Kilbirnie. By the time we were all there it looked a little bit like we were staging a protest in front of the aquatic centre. A women in a military uniform showed up and asked me if the centre was closed. After I had assured her that it was open, she came back with 40 kids from St Marks’ School. As the kids filed past me I wondered what kind of swimming programme the Anglicans were running that required a military attaché. We left more or less on time for our first stop.
There is a large Indian Cultural Centre on Kemp Street, and inside that there is a Hindu temple. I have never been in either the centre or the temple. Inside the large, deserted and frigid foyer I followed a trail of sandals to the doors of the temple which were plastered with various signs telling me I shouldn’t eat or drink inside. Inside it was very warm. Pleasingly there was a row of ornate, gorgeous and garishly coloured statues at the far end of the temple which otherwise was really just a large, ordinary room with plastic seats and the smell of incense. The temple priest was a youngish, Indian man in white with a long strand of hair down the nape of his neck.
The girls filed in after removing their shoes and sat down on the plastic chairs. The priest began by explaining that he had only been in New Zealand for 15 months, and that his English was limited. Actually his English was excellent, but his accent was strong and this threw some of the students off. For a long time I thought he was telling us that the Gods had weapons so they could attack Islam, but it turned out he was saying “evil” which was a relief.
The priest explained that there were four repeating ages, and that we were living in the fourth age which was the bad one where everything gets mixed up and disasters start occurring before the whole caboodle eventually goes up in smoke. Proof that we were in the fourth age: tsunami, global warming, having to pay for bottled water, and women wearing pants. Shortly after this our pack of pant-wearing girls (many with bottled water in their bags I have no doubt) went up to the front of the temple to look at the statues. In the unlikely event I take up an organised religion I think the statues could swing it for me with Hinduism. The multi-armed Shiva, the elephant-headed Ganesha, the turtle that supports the world on its back, the monkey Rama, and Krishna’s flute. So much more stimulating to look at than Jesus nailed to a cross.
The girls were taken with idea of Krishna and his lady friend. They never married, they never made love, it was a love of the heart only. Lots of appreciative cooing from the girls on this. Never mind the other 16,000 wives. One student sidled up to me:
“You know how all the statues look like girls?”
I nodded. The statues did all look like girls. Except for the monkey and the elephant.
“…but some of them are guys?”
“What do Hindus think about homosexuality?”
Not knowing – but guessing – the answer to this question, I encouraged her to ask the temple priest who confirmed my guess. He shook his head and waved his arms. Has there ever been a religion that was really accepting of everyone?
We left, after I had improvised a thank you and the girls had clapped appreciatively, to go and stand in the freezing cold driveway and make jokes about global warming. Thankfully the mosque wasn’t far away.
“It used to be a postal distribution centre,” one of the teachers told me as we sat in the library of the mosque. Presumably the minaret was a later addition to the building. “And then it was converted,” it wasn’t much of a joke, but I was still a little miffed that no one laughed.
The library of the mosque was large, and had wood cabinets filled with books behind glass running along the walls. The Muslim girls in our group, after pulling up their head scarves (they had come prepared), had led us in the women’s entrance of the Mosque which was off to the side of the grander male entrance and, I noted with a certain amount of delight, also served as the disabled entrance. We waited for a while in the library which was a little cold. The girls chatted and waved their phones around. Eventually Mohammed showed up. We had met last year and we shook hands. He has a nice full beard, and a little white cap which helps the students get in the mood. When I told him we would be there for half an hour he seemed momentarily alarmed but I couldn’t tell if this was because it was far longer or far shorter a time than he had imagined we would be there.
He talked about the five pillars of Islam. Girls tentatively asked questions. Why the hat? He shrugged. It’s just a hat. Why the beard? He shrugged. It’s just a tradition. He talked about the wonderful equality and lack of discrimination in Islam. I couldn’t help but recall the women’s entrance to the mosque, and the fact that we were sitting outside the women’s prayer hall. Mohammed took us into the men’s prayer hall. It was almost completely bare, but the patterned carpet and the ceiling tiles had all been put in diagonally so that the faithful knew which way to pray to Mecca and this created enough interest for the students who had shushed each other violently before they went in. Pacific Island girls in any kind of religious setting brook no whispered chat.
It seems that in New Zealand Muslims pray to Mecca over Antarctica. I suppose this is the shortest route. For a religion that has very sensibly restricted representation so that its followers don’t venerate the messenger, it seems strange that there is so much of a fixation on the Kaaba at Mecca. That fixation is pretty compelling however. The thought of millions of people around the globe all facing towards a central point five times a day is equals parts awe-inspiring, and disturbing to the outsider.
After we left the mosque it was time for lunch. It began to rain, but the girls had already scattered. After lunch we would be visiting the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholics.