As the mist began to rise above the dusty paths of the outskirts of the “Ancienne Medina” of Casablanca, I was dreaming of the impassioned sermon made by the Imam last Friday. His gray-black beard spilled over his pearl white djellabah and beads of perspiration streamed down his face as his hypnotic voice told the story of his rebirth as a Moslem soldier, having been a mercenary in the trenches in Southeast Asia. I assumed the “julus” position, half-sitting, half-kneeling in the back row, my eyes following his every gesture. I was afraid to blink, not wanting to miss the intense emotion of the moment. I leaned forward, intent on absorbing every detail, my hands clutching the sides of my striped djellabah.

The dream was shattered, the memory of its intensity sent to the archives of my mind, by the jolting realization that I was a prisoner here. A pat on the shoulder by a fellow Islamic monk chased the dream away forever, alerting me that the dawn mass would soon begin. The master and the omnipotent Imam expected everyone below in the prayer room at 5:30 am sharp.

I was snuggled warmly in my sleeping bag, laid out alongside other monks in the loft of the stone mosque, from which rose a sleek white minaret. I had called the mosque home for the last two weeks.

I gathered up my drooping body, emerging from the dark-blue cocoon. Half asleep, my body cringed as I gently pulled the djellabah over me, my bearded face, shaved head popping through in the shadows of the early morning light. I stood up, slipped on my pointed Arabian shoes and shuffled to the door, behind which a spiral wooden staircase awaited me.

My body swayed like the trunk of an aged elephant as I ambled down the staircase. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, voices emanating from the minarets next to the white, stone mosques broke the silence, entreating, inviting and cajoling the sleepy inhabitants to rise and walk to the mosque for prayer.

I entered the washroom where cans of water were waiting for the worshippers, next to the toilets. I started my ablutions, trying to remember in which order I was supposed to wash my body—my mind was still fuzzy from the restless tossing and turning in my sleeping bag the past night. The cold water splashed on my arms elicited masses of tiny goose bumps, but at least I was more awake.

I sat on a wooden pedestal so that I could wash my feet, commencing with the left. A brother monk entered, his gray eyes closely watching me, desperately trying to follow the order of ablutions. I quickly dropped the left foot and grabbed the right one. He smiled and proceeded to cleanse his body.

After washing my left foot, under the close surveillance of the monk who had stopped washing his arms to behold my awkward movements, I stood up to leave.

“You begin by washing the right foot, Muhammad,” he said, his gray eyes fixed on me. I nodded and passed through the double doors on my way to the main prayer room.

My footsteps echoed in the deserted hallway, as I padded along the cold floors in my pointed, tan-colored shoes, hastily purchased in the “souk” of the Ancienne Medina before becoming a monk at the mosque. It was called the “Masjid Nord” (North Mosque), for reasons I would never know, and reputed to be very politically active.

A green curtain separated the hallway from the prayer room; I placed my hand to the right side of the curtains and opened them wide enough to slide my body through. In front of me was a line of worshippers preparing for the dawn prayer session. I joined them, taking a half-sitting, half-kneeling position: the inside of my left foot was under me, my right foot was in a vertical position and my toes were pressed against the mat made from lake reeds.

I had taken my usual position in front of the door, through which I could see the main door separating me from this world and a freedom I once knew. Its gray, ominous sides rose up to over twelve feet, like the door to a vault—the thick, reinforced bulk seemed to dare anyone to penetrate it.

As I stood up and pronounced “Allahu Akbar,” my eyes met those of the turbaned guard standing in front of the closed main door; his beady, bright eyes pierced mine as I recited the “Fatiha.” I bent over, placing my hands on my knees, and repeated “Sobhana rabbiya al Al-ala.” (“Glory be to God almighty”) Looking up, it appeared as if the same guard saw through me: my body felt like a prism, sending my thoughts in different colors to him who, I imagined as a cold shock electrified my entire body, could someday become my executioner.

My body shivered at the thought of the guard reading my inner thoughts—that I was a prisoner, not a guest, that I desperately, silently needed to escape before it was too late, before my life had been assimilated into a new culture, before I became a certified member of the nodding masses, agreeing with every word of the Imam, standing in the corner of the mosque.

Even though we numbered fifty, it seemed as though the intense, dark eyes of the Imam, the master, were staring into mine, as well as those of the others, at the same time. My eyes strayed to the mat ahead of me in fear that the all-intelligent, omnipresent Imam would also divine my thoughts.
As I prostrated myself, placing my forehead on the woven mat, reciting “Sobhana rabbiya al adhime,” (“Praise be to thee my Lord, the most high”) I thought to myself that even though the will to escape burned inside me, it was more and more compromised by the slow, daily, ebbing away of my strength.
I rose again and before reciting the “Fatiha,” I looked out the door again and the guard was not in his usual position before the gate. I was convinced that somehow he had read my mind and now was disclosing to the spiritual leader of the mosque my intentions to escape, that I was not a believer but an infidel, and that I should be punished.

As I bowed my head, clasping my knees with my hands, I waited for the sentence to be cast against me. No new movement was made against me. As I stood, repeating “Allahu Akbar,” I noticed the guard had resumed his position before the door, his mirthless smile curled into his dense, black beard.

After prostrating myself again, I sat on the mat as the words “Allahu Akbar” echoed in whispers throughout the room. I thought to myself, avoiding the eyes of the overly attentive guard, that in proportion to the ebbing of physical strength, my resistance grew weaker; I became resigned to the possibility I might never leave that prison, that I would forever be mentally and physically held captive to the doctrines reverberating within the walls of the mosque, which towered over the dusty suburbs like a desert tomb. .