9. Naomi Onaga

Oakland, Calif.


March 9, 2009 was the birthday of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him, hereinafter, PUH)*.

At least according to the Islamic calendar. Mawlid an-Nabi, the Birth of the Prophet Muhammed (PUH) is the 12 th day of the third month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Rabi' al-awwal.   Many Sunnis celebrate this day. Some Shi'a however celebrate Mawlid on the 17 th day of the month (i.e. on March 14 in 2009), the date of the birth of their sixth Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq.

On March 9, 2009, I was at a Mawlid celebration in the middle of Oakland organized by the Murid Community, a Senegalese Muslim brotherhood. I'm not Muslim nor Senegalese, but was invited by Adama, an intern in my office who is both. His name is the Wolof equivalent of "Adam"; his twin sister named Awa, the equivalent of "Eve". I went with Angela, who is Swiss and American and Latina at heart.

We were discretely told earlier that day that while not mandatory, we might want to cover our hair. It's good that it was cold that day and we had both brought scarves. Adama also said that we should know that it is not customary for women to shake hands with men. He laughed about Condoleezza Rice having committed a diplomatic faux pas on a trip to Libya last September by enthusiastically offering her hand to Gadaffi, who refused it. All of this was apparently all over French television, but seems to not have been covered widely in the U.S. and British press, which emphasized instead that he "greeted her with his hand over his heart."

Angela and I arrived with our respective head coverings, me with a purple scarf from the Philippines and Angela with a striped scarf from Switzerland with a complicated array of colors, for which she has eerily matching earrings. The room was a hall of the Fellowship of Humanity. There were mats placed on the floor in the front of the room, folding chairs that followed, and tables of food in the back. Also a strand of gold tinsel draped asymmetrically across the front of the room, a leftover from Christmas.

The mats were for men (on the right) and women (on the left), listening to Arabic prayer echoing through a sound system. The prayers, read by someone over a microphone, were quite beautiful and melodic, and made me conscious of the beating of my heart. Some people rocked to it while they followed the words in pages with Arabic writing cradled in their hands. But the loud speaker would periodically let out a very loud screeching sound which was a bit jarring. The toddlers that ran about didn't seem bothered by it though.

Sheila, dressed in a black robe and scarf, started talking to us and gave us a pretty detailed explanation of the five pillars of Islam: Shahada (declaration of faith), Salah (prayers), Zakat (obligation to give alms), Sawm (fasting during Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). And some other teachings. All while we were ingesting Senegalese coffee and Senegalese style beignets, which was remarkably similar to andagi, the "Okiniwan donut", which incidentally doesn't have holes. She said she teaches Islam in prisons. She introduced us to Aisha, a "Somali woman born in Kenya." Sheila was from Oakland. But most of the people there were Senegalese, but they didn't arrive till later.

Senegalese women are famous for having beautiful traditional clothing, and eventually all the folding chairs filled up with women glowing in elaborate dresses constructed from vibrant fabrics, gravity-defying headdresses and sparkly scarves. Some women managed to balance this load atop precarious slippers with pointy toes and stiletto heals, while also carrying about infants and large trays of food.


After the readings, we were invited to do Muslim prayer, but demurred. I wasn't sure if it's sacrilegious to do the motions without being Muslim; also I had no idea how to do it anyway. If I knocked someone over in the process of trying to bow, kneel and prostrate appropriately, it may have been a larger diplomatic incident than Condie's. It was good we didn't do the prayer, because later we were told that you aren't supposed to do it if you don't wash yourself in a specific way first. I hadn't washed my hair in days, much less the rest of me in the correct way.

I read later that Mawlid celebrations are characterized by prayers, stories about the Prophet (PUH), food, and sometimes processions. At this one, after the prayers, a brother from the community (who Adama said worked in computers in the South Bay) gave a talk about the life of Muhammed (PUH), who was not God but a messenger, loved by all, and a living example of how humans can live an exemplary life.

Prayers were followed by an explosion of food; there was nowhere to turn without being confronted by people and paper plates full of couscous with chicken and vegetables, meats, cake, fruits, salads, noodles, stewed onions. It was really great, though I'm attempting to be vegetarian again so avoided the meats.

Adama said that back home, Mawlid is celebrated all night. But this was the go-go US, and people had to go-go to work the next day to their Silicon Valley jobs and such, so the celebration would end around midnight. And no processions.

As we were leaving, Aisha told me that I should come back and next time I should take the Declaration. Then I can get a long dress and a hijab (veil), and learn the prayers. I thanked her, and pondered this, as well as the night, the world and beyond, as March 9 on the Gregorian calendar was ending and Angela and I were walking toward the bus stop.

Maybe Jack should do March 9 next year on the Islamic calendar. Just for variety. And to not be Eurocentric and to be free from religious discrimination. We could consider Rabi' al-awwal as the equivalent of March. Then March 9 next year will be around February 23. It would be a truly Brave New March 9 to have it on February 23. And the next March 9 can be based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar. And then the Mayan calendar. This could give March 9 the glamour of the World Cup or the Olympics, but instead of banally rotating cities/countries based on geographic regions like "France 2006," "Beijing 2008" and "South Africa 2010", it will rotate to different universes based on paradigms of time - "Hijri 2010," "Xia 2011" "Tzolk'in 2012." But this would create a paradox because the counting of those years are based on a Christian calendar, marked from the birth of Christ. And the Mayan calendar foretells the End of Days in 2012, so should we not use that calendar for that year? Can Jack save humanity from annihilation if he anchors March 9, 2012 on the Hindu or the Coptic calendar instead? Or maybe we should just go for the Mayan and see what happens - it could catapult us into a new dimension... Write or phone Jack now with your vote. Or opine into the comment box in the shiny new online March 9. Or Jack could do an online poll. Oh the possibilities of the Digital Age. Is there a marking of time that started with the birth of the Internet? The birth of the Mac?

* Adama said that in Islamic practice you are supposed to always say "Peace Be Upon Him" ( sall Allahu alayhi wa sallam) every time you say or write the name of the Prophet Muhammed (PUH). This can be abbreviated "PUH", or sometimes "PBUH". This is so even when referring to him simply as "the Prophet" (PUH!).


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