There is something incredibly profound about an invitation, a granting of permission to step into someone else’s sphere. Walking the streets of Hyderabad we are hoisted utop pedestals, gawked at and questioned—strange Americans who appear out of place. We feel out of place. Strolling around ruins hundreds of years old, of which we hope to snap the perfect photo, exploring a Hindu temple to search for elements we’ve read about, or weaving through frantic yet serene crowds of people who sort through clothes and produce at the bazaar, we stand alongside these people, but we remain only tourists in India. At the Mosque at Hyderabad, however, I felt that for a moment I became more than a tourist, and it is because I received an invitation.
We entered the women’s prayer hall with the intention of watching the prayer, and we squirmed with discomfort at our ignorance, heads looking toward our group and at the Muslim women, frantically back and forth as though watching a tennis match desperate for a clue as to how we should compose ourselves. Caught up with the sensation that we were only outsiders, we were frozen with concern that we might do or say something wrong as we encroached on a seemingly impenetrable tradition. The Imam’s voice blared violently, passionately, carefully and with courageous sounding purpose over the speakers, leading the women who could understand his words in prayer. At a break, some of the women looked back at us and we braced with fear that we would be questioned, that we might be offending a sacred tradition. I do not think I am ever likely to forget the moment when one women’s eyes connected with my own as she reached out her hand in welcome, beconing us to move up and join them. Another women made a motion as to tell me how I should adjust my head scarf, and another came over to the line of us American women to show us how we should stand shoulder to shoulder, to become one unit. It felt like we had been swimming in a vast ocean whose currant was dragging us further from shore and comfort, only to be tossed a life raft. And no longer was I only an observer; I became one connected with the group of women standing and rising to the foreign words of the Imam. At the end of prayer the Muslim women dispersed and we made our way outside, and while putting on my shoes I felt strangely lighter. Invited to escape my own bubble to be thrust into the sacred space of these women, I felt for a moment I was no longer out of place