Downtown Islamic Center

August 1, 2020

The first mosque I ventured to was the Downtown Islamic Center, situated inside Chicago’s commercial center, known as the Loop. I attended on Eid al-Adha, the most important Islamic holiday of the year. The holiday celebrates the end of Hajj and commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

While many mosques are spread out over one or two floors, this mosque is vertical and located inside a tall office building. Its prayer areas, multifunction rooms, and classrooms are distributed over multiple floors. Each floor is accessed by an elevator, with different floors assigned to men and women. Women are contained to their floor, which means that during events such as Eid, women can only connect and view the imam and the rest of the community through a small screen at the front of the room. I purposely kept the recording device with me to capture the sounds of the women’s area and how women experience the prayers and sermons through speakers and a TV system.

To attend the prayers, I had to sign up to attend through Eventbrite (before COVID, registration was never required to observe prayers). I received a QR code for contact tracing and to ensure a limited number of attendees so as to enable social distancing. At the entrance to the mosque, several volunteers were standing to scan QR codes, offer assistance at the hygiene station, take everyone’s temperature, ensure compliance with masking, and guide worshipers to the correct floor based on their gender.

Upon entering the women’s prayer room, I was offered a large sheet of brown paper that could serve as a hygienic prayer mat for those who had not brought their own. Luckily, I had brought my prayer carpet with me, but many women were praying on the brown sheets. The whole floor had been carefully labeled with blue tape to demarcate where each worshiper could sit, at least 6 to 8 feet away from other people. There were about 13 other women of all ages. The women were all dressed in their Eid finery. As it was still early in the pandemic, few of the women spoke to one another. Most people seemed to exist in their own world, fearful of the virus those surrounding them might carry. Unlike during regular times, there were no hugs or even evident smiles.
Many women were focused on their cell phones while the imam spoke, while a handful seemed to be paying attention to the small screen at the front of the room. I could barely make out the shape of the imam on the screen. Children had explicitly been banned from attending the Eid service, although one mother had managed to sneak in her two daughters, contributing to the auditory experience. The sound of children is ubiquitous at mosques, especially in women’s sections, so their voices gave the space some semblance of normalcy despite the strange setup.

I sat near the wall and towards the back of the room to avoid being too close to too many people. Above me was the air conditioning, which was quite loud and is responsible for the low droning noise in the background. Loud and distracting noises, obstructed views, and poor sound system quality are just some of the problems that women face in their designated prayer spaces. The imam quickly led the congregation through the prayers, before giving the khutba. Once he completed this, the women all stood up in the rows demarcated by colored tape but still separated by many feet. While Muslims typically emphasize the need for proximity between worshipers – to the point that their toes and shoulders are touching – this new and strange way of praying together but separately felt disjointed but still celebratory.

Unlike pre-COVID times, when people attended Eid prayers with their families and friends, this event seemed much more solitary. In the audio, you will hear the air conditioning system, children crying and fidgeting, and the voice of the imam through the speaker system. Upon completing the prayers, the imam thanked attendees for adhering to COVID regulations. As soon as he finished speaking, the women rapidly stood up at the same time, folded their prayer carpets, and exited the room. In the hallway, they picked up pre-packaged festive food of sweets and samosas and made their way to the crowded elevator back to the street. In the many times that I have attended Eid prayers, this was certainly the most rushed and lonely service.
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