During my first month in Yemen, anyone who was driving me anywhere in the city would ask “have you seen the big mosque?” as we drove by the big mosque. Now, the Saleh mosque would be nearly impossible to miss, being 1) humongous and 2) the only building in Yemen that looks really nice. It’s practically brand new building, completed in 2008 for the measly price of $60 million. But don’t worry— Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh wasn’t squandering state funds. Nope, he built the mosque with his own personal fortune. Yemeni’s I have talked to have been pleased to repeat this line. “He built us a mosque! With his own money!” How generous of him!
So my friend M. and I decided to visit. I popped a scarf over my hair, borrowed an abeya from the mosque’s much-neglected tourist police (an abeya which closed up the front with Velcro—yahoo tearaway abeya), and we wandered around the building. It’s a big place, which can hold many thousands of worshippers. I heard many numbers tossed out during the visit, from 20K to 60K—the official website says that full capacity is 44,000. The plush carpets and huge open interior made me feel like doing cartwheels. Which probably would have been frowned upon. It seemed like a great place for children to play, and they were, running all over the place.
At some point, somebody said “Hey look! Foreigners!” and ushered M. and I into the women’s section, where we got free juice and joined some sort of Malaysian delegation for a formal tour of the mosque. Apparently they’re planning on turning a huge section into a ‘college of world religions,’ where all religions will be studied. Buddhism! Christianity! Jewish! Etc.
Our charming female guide (who I will call Fatima, because I have no clue what her real name is) showed us the women’s section. The decorative wooden screens in the women’s section don’t actually give you a very good view into the main mosque, but that’s cool because you can watch the action on big closed-circuit TVs. Oh, how modern technology facilitates the seclusion of Arab women from public life! Fatima chanted some Qur’an for us and then began a lengthy explanation of how Christians are actually Muslims. Her English was a little hard to follow, but apparently there was a lot of Jewish meddling with the ‘real’ holy books, and I guess if you read the bible closely enough it tells you all about Mohammed (that college of religions is starting to look like either a very good or a very bad idea). Anyhow, Fatima took us back to get our shoes, loaded us down with Islamic literature (example pictured below—it came with candy!) and gently but persistently tried to convert us. Anyone who knows me well should understand why it is hard for me to explain why I believe in Jesus instead of Mohammed.
P.S. Muslims believe in Jesus too, they just don’t buy into the whole ‘son-of-god’ thing. They’d probably get along well in that respect with a lot of early Christian scholars. Jesus’ birth is in the Qur’an, but not his death. Which is why Christmas is a public Muslim holiday!!! Woo hoo!