In Saudi Arabia, a Muslim Call to Prayer Inspires Jewish Prayer—in Private
I had to lie about my religion to enter the kingdom on business, but I would continue to daven every morning in secret
I’m only half-asleep as I hear the muezzin’s call to prayer resounding from a loudspeaker in the half-light just before dawn: “Allaaaaaaaahu akhbar!” Lying in bed, still jet-lagged the day after my arrival in Saudi Arabia, I know I can’t sleep anymore, so I get out of bed to recite my own morning prayers.
In the semi-darkness of the bedroom, I put on my Irish tweed cap because I don’t have any kippah—it might have aroused suspicion at customs. Neither do I have any tallit or tefillin to put on, because the customs inspector would have seized them. So, I skip the familiar blessings for tallit and tefillin and begin instead with the rofei kol basar blessing for the body and the la’asok b’divrei Torah blessing for the gift of Torah. I have no prayerbook, another forbidden article in this kingdom, so I close my eyes and recite what I can from memory, murmuring quietly because in my paranoia I imagine someone might be listening.
Soon I come to the birkot ha-Shachar, the morning blessings for the renewal of the day. Melech ha-olam, she’asani Yisrael, I say, thanking God for making me a Jew. Just yesterday, as I filled out the form for passport control after landing at the airport, in the space marked “Religion” I wrote “Christian.” I did the same thing a few weeks ago when I applied for a visa, and the lie does not get easier with practice. The ruse is absurd because the rector of the Saudi university that is my sponsor knows I’m a Jew. Even the government here knows and tried to refuse my visa, but my sponsor applied some political pressure in the right places, so now as long as I keep up the pretense, the government will pretend it doesn’t know. Shetatzileini ha-yom u’v’chol yom … midin kasheh umiba’al din kasheh—protect me from harsh judgments and harsh judges. I hope that our pretense will not somehow collapse.
Why are these morning prayers so important to me that I say them even here? I was brought up in a secular Jewish household, had an Orthodox bar mitzvah to please one set of grandparents, and very soon afterward rejected religion entirely. I never lost the sense of being Jewish in some way, but it was unclear to me what to do about it. I did not know Yiddish. I had no particular interest in visiting Israel. Then, when my gentile wife gave birth to my daughter, I realized that I was part of a chain that was either going to end with me or not. The one authentic way I knew how to do being Jewish was by practicing Judaism—the religion itself. So, I read everything I could find about it in our public library, gained an adult understanding of it, and became a regular Saturday participant at a Conservative shul, eventually accompanied by my daughter. My wife didn’t have any religious practice and was very supportive of my daughter’s conversion ceremony and subsequent Hebrew school education. Seven years later, I began a routine of daily prayers, expanding it until it encompassed the full weekday service about a year ago. I came to consider myself on a gentle upward slope toward increased observance. Vegetarianism became my way of keeping kosher. On Shabbat, I’d make a point of avoiding household chores and anything too reminiscent of work, such as turning on the computer, but I would use electricity. And I remained clean-shaven, without a kippah or visible tzitzit; I didn’t stand out in a crowd as a Jew.
Ten years after I began praying daily, I planned my trip to Saudi Arabia. It was not my idea. My employer, an educational publisher, was helping a Saudi university develop an entrance exam when the rector also became interested in the career information resources that my group had developed. I was the team member most knowledgeable about the materials and what would be required to adapt them for Saudi Arabia, so I was asked to be the representative and visit the university for a week. I was already committed to the visit when my contact at the university, an American-educated Lebanese Christian, guessed that I was Jewish and told me I would need to lie about my religion.
So, now here I stand, in my dimly lit room on the Saudi university campus, practicing Judaism in hushed tones. I’m able to deal with the lack of a prayerbook by calling up passages from memory. But as I work my way into the p’sukei d’zimra part of the service, I find myself getting lost in an open sea. In the middle of a psalm, a similarity of wording causes me to skip to an entirely different part of the service, and I realize that I don’t know how this psalm ends. I try to remember which psalm comes next so I can resume the proper order, but I can’t. So, I recite misordered pieces of psalms and say as much of this part of the service as I can. Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll remember more, I tell myself.
In one psalm, I say Hashem shomeir et-geirim—God protects the stranger. I have been feeling like a stranger in need of divine protection since just after my arrival at the Riyadh airport. When I walked out of International Arrivals and into Domestic Departures for the flight to this city on the Gulf, I was suddenly almost the only person in Western garb.
Eventually I reach the blessings preceding the Kriat Shema. Sitting on my bed, I get lost once again as the text winds its way from blessing the light to describing the praise of the angels and then back to blessing the light. In this country they believe not only in angels but also in djinns. With ahavah rabah, abundant love, I am again in command of the words, and then comes the climactic moment, Shema Yisrael—hear, O Israel—but there can be only myself to hear, as I do not dare to raise my voice.
Shema—so like the Arabic word for the same thing: s’ma. Many other Hebrew words I am murmuring in the solitude of my room sound like the words that my neighbors are no doubt using at this very moment in praise of Allah. During my visit people will think I have a peculiar knack for picking up Arabic words, and I’ll give credit to my Berlitz tape because I can’t admit that I know these words from Hebrew. When I meet with my university clients to talk about the career development resources I’m helping them prepare, I’ll want to tell them that I understand and sympathize with the importance of religion in their culture because religion is important to me—but I won’t be able to open up that topic of conversation.
I rise from my bed for the Amidah. Remembering all of its 19 weekday blessings is a challenge; the Saturday morning Amidah is shorter and therefore easier. Thoughts of Saturday—tomorrow—trouble me. It’s the first day of the work week here, something else I should have realized before committing to this visit. Of course, on rare occasions I have encountered this problem at home, too. A couple of years ago, my boss had our team working three weeks without a day off, under pressure to finish a project—in fact, the very same materials that I am here to present.
As I wade into the Amidah, I manage to say most of the blessings and stay in the right order. Mageyn Avraham, Shield of Abraham—I must admit that the people I have met here so far have upheld the generous hospitality that is credited to our common ancestor Abraham. I wish I could reveal our kinship. V’li’yerushalayim—I feel a sense of sad irony as I say the blessing for Jerusalem, because I am ever so much closer to Jerusalem right now than I am when I say this at home, yet I feel cut off from it, surrounded by people who call it Al-Quds and who think it has been stolen from them. The newspaper they gave me on the plane last night had an editorial cartoon portraying Israel as sabotaging peace efforts. I finish the Amidah with the blessing for peace. The prayerbook whose fragments I carry in my memory, unlike some more traditional ones, extends this blessing to all the world, and not just to all Yisrael. Will the people here ever find peace with my people and share in the blessing?
Culinary experts from France come to Israel to share their knowledge, and to learn a few things at the same time