Qiblah- the direction in which muslims face during prayer. They face the direction of the kaabah which is the cuboid structure located in Makkah, Saudi Arabia where muslims go for pilgrimage.
New thoughts usually come to mind while I’m in transit; either as I walk alone in the cold early mornings or as I travel alone for a long distance. I have to be alone or else I’ll fill the journey with my endless chatter. When I’m by myself, however, I am forced to direct the chatter inwards. I either talk to my younger self as I reminisce some old memories or to my future self as I imagine possible twists of fate.
On this particular day, there were many travellers at the stage and I had to scramble to get a space in the matatu. I feel grateful for getting a seat as I fasten my seat belt while I watch other fellow travellers outside waiting impatiently for the next matatu with disappointment etched on their faces. They say survival for the fittest; did it mean I was fit? I’d rather not answer that! The matatu takes several turns before it takes the final corner and winds onto the highway and the driver accelerates to full speed.
I realise I had inadvertently chosen a seat that was on the opposite side of the sun and I’m glad I don’t have to get scotched for an hour. As I look at the afternoon sun on the opposite window, I try to calculate in my mind the direction of qiblah. I had just recently discovered how to find the qiblah by just observing the sun. When I say discover, I don’t mean the kind of discoveries made by some Europeans when they discovered Mount Kenya and Lake Victoria, for people just a few centuries back used the sun and stars to tell direction before the advent of new devices that made our lives easier but at the same time made our brains a little bit less active. Just the same way people had lived for several generations around the lake and mountain before a foreigner came to discover it for them. What I mean by discover is that in an oblivious moment, something just clicked in my head and I finally understood clearly how I could tell the direction using the position of the sun on the sky. I had put off learning it for such a long time for fear that it’s too complex but when I finally understood it I was surprised by the simplicity and I wondered why no one bothered to teach me when I was younger.
I tell myself that this is such a handy skill —especially when you happen to live in a town inhabited by very few muslims— that I must teach to my children. I don’t know why but on this particular occasion inside a speeding matatu, I think of how I’ll explain this to my daughter. Perhaps I thought of a daughter rather than a son because my mind was imagining a younger me being taught by a loving parent. Or maybe I thought of teaching my daughter to dispel the misconception that a girl’s mind is too naïve to understand complex information and they should just be taught basic knowledge that will help them look after the house.
As someone once said, you have not understood it if you cannot explain it to a six year old. So I think of the simplest way I could explain it. Bismillah.
“So we have the four cardinal points: north (N), east (E), west (W) and south (S) i.e. NEWS.” I hope she has already learnt this in school by the time I remember to teach her.
“The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If you want to find the qiblah during the morning hours, just know that the sun is still somewhere on the eastern side. So make sure your right hand is on the side of the sun and you’ll be facing north which is our qiblah. If it happens to be in the afternoon, the sun is somewhere on the western side. If you make sure your left hand is on the sunny side then you’ll be facing north which is our qiblah. Understood?”
What if she asks me, “Where should my hands be when the sun is at the zenith, exactly at the middle neither at the east nor west?”
I chuckle as I remember how some people say that I keep on asking complex but interesting questions. I really hope she’s as curious as I am and I pray I have the patience and enough knowledge to answer her questions correctly without dismissing her. But as for now, the only answer I have for her is what business does she have looking for the qiblah at a time when it’s forbidden to pray? She’ll need an equal amount of patience to withstand my sarcastic and seemingly rude answers! But does she know how to tell it’s time for a certain prayer without the help of a clock? I can remember my ustadh in madrasa chanting about shadow lengths and hues of the sky but I did not understand then how I was going to measure the length of my shadow without it moving and stretching farther away. I decide that is another thing I have to learn and perhaps I’ll teach it to her too if she’ll be interested.
Then I worry that she’ll think that the qiblah is always to the north. So I hurry to explain to her that the qiblah is the direction where the kaabah is. And for us in Kenya, it’s to the north. You can see this clearly on the map. Wait… is she old enough to even know what a map is? Or do I have to explain a map to her prematurely?
“It is how you see something when you look at it from high above but it is made much smaller than it really is.” I tell her.
I remember a young me being fascinated as we were taught about the map of a cup and table and various odd things. I spin my world globe as I show her the direction of Makkah in Saudi Arabia where the kaabah is located and how it’s to the north of Kenya.
“So each country will face the direction its country is in relation to Makkah in Saudi Arabia.” I hope she grows to like the world map the way I do. Oh how I would stare and get lost in the large political world map that was placed in front of my geography class as I nodded my head periodically in the direction of the teacher so that she thinks I’m still following what she’s saying!
My thoughts are cut short as the matatu takes an unexpected sharp turn and detours from the main highway. My fight or flight system fires and my heart starts thumping in my chest. Everyone else seems calm as if it was the norm. I start wondering whether everyone in the matatu was a kidnapper and I was the only genuine passenger. I ask the lady next to me where we were heading and she says the driver has taken another route to avoid the traffic jam. Oh Nairobi and its traffic! I sit straight up and watch every turn taken as I draw a mental map in my head just in case something happens and I have to come all the way to the main road back to safety. I would have taken out a paper and pen and drawn the map physically but I was afraid I might raise suspicion. I decide that my layers of clothes and a big bag are enough suspicion for a day and I hope my brain will hold onto the mental image and won’t betray me. I find it funny that fight or flight refers to a situation when one is the most alert and active while flight mode is exactly the opposite! I chide myself for thinking of unimportant things in this grave situation. My mind eases a bit as we end up in a familiar road. I try hard to continue my previous stream of thought but my mind refuses. Perhaps it’s its way of warning me that if I’m not alert enough, there might be no daughter to teach anything to! Instead, I turn back to the supplications that I had not completed earlier that morning for fear that I might run late if I stayed the extra five minutes to complete reciting them. How ignorant I tend to get at times!