27 April 2012

Aim True...

Have you ever been to a mosque?  Me neither.  (Unless you have, in which case, congratulations.)  But, I have watched a lot of movies.  No, this post isn't about my favorite foreign film, but rather about something I've noticed about the architecture of the mosques being used as sets in a couple of these movies.

I'd often wondered, as a fleeting peripheral thought, what the half-dome cutout was that sat in one of the walls of the mosque.  In my ignorant youth (wink) I'd assumed it to be a mere decorative element, but as I explored the architecture of more and more of these religious buildings, I began to notice a trend.  Each mosque seemed to have one...and only one.  And, these curious cutouts were not limited to mosques found in Muslim countries, oh no.  They can be found in mosques all over our stunning planet.  So?  What are they for?

As it turns out, though they are typically gloriously decorated and ornately beautiful, they serve a pretty banal purpose.  They're a directional tool.  Unless you have an innate sense of direction and are capable of pointing the way to Mecca without reading star charts or whipping out your compass, you'll need a Mihrab (the snazzy little cut-out) to help you out! 

Originally, during the reign of Uthman ibn Affan, the Caliph had a sign put up inside the mosque at Medina denoting the direction in which Mecca lay.  He did this so visitors would know which way to orient themselves during their prayers.  The sign worked just fine for a while, but then, when the Mosque of the Prophet (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) was renovated in the early 700's, the governor of Medina decided that a half-round, domed cutout was to be put in the "qibla wall" (the wall facing Mecca).  After a short while the signs were replaced in nearly every mosque as the Mihrab became the more universally understood method of showing the way to Mecca: most likely because it transcended language and literacy barriers.

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Stunning right?  I think it's worth noting that some historians believe that the decision to make the Mihrab look like doorways was made intentionally.  If true, its purpose then becomes to represent a literal and figurative "doorway" to Mecca.

Nowadays, Mihrab vary in size and embellishment, but their purpose is the same.  No matter who you are, what your language proficiency may be, or whether or not you're from the area, you'll be able to find your way to Mecca.

Though I am not Muslim, I hope someday I'll be able to visit and pray in a building like this, if only to gain a greater understanding of the people around me.  Because...it wouldn't hurt for us all to have a little more understanding.


17 January 2012

The House of the Rising Sun

Japan is a neat place.  There are few countries in the world where fierce ancient traditions can coexist harmoniously with technology that's moving faster than the text message of a 15 year-old girl.  Seriously.  Tradition is one of the reasons I find myself lovesessed (if you will) with the Land of the Rising Sun.  I feel like there are too many places that are fully ready to abandon ship on their customs the moment "Westernization" gives them a foxy wink.  Therein lies the beauty of Japan.

Despite it's best attempts to swallow the practices of an ancient culture and spit out SUV's and apple pie, Westernization has lost.  Perhaps lost is too concrete a word.  Rather, the Japanese took the things that benefited them most and merged them with what was already working.  One of the best places to see evidence of this is in the Japanese home.

The first thing you'd notice upon being invited to a typical Japanese house is the presence of what's referred to as genkan.  Genkan are basically a place for you to remove your shoes and put on a pair of house slippers before you enter the main home.  The primary purpose is to prevent muddy or otherwise dirty shoes from tracking little goodies all over the place, but many believe that there's a psychological purpose as well.  When you walk into the home, remove your shoes and then step up into the space, you become a little bit aware of the fact that you are a guest in someones private home.  Ideally your behavior would reflect this new-found insight.  Ideally.

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Genkan are almost always made of an easily cleaned surface like tile or linoleum but sometimes, when the house is further away from the mega cities, the Genkan will have a concrete floor.  This makes it easier to sweep any dried debris right out the door and into the yard.  Interestingly, many schools and even some older businesses have genkan, but they usually have cubbyholes or lockers to store the shoes that would otherwise pile up.

Oh, and don't worry if you find yourself invited to dinner but you're without your own set of house slippers.  Most homeowners will have slippers at the ready for guests.  However, if you have big ol' feet (or feet that are particularly...um...pungent) you may want to hurry out and buy a pair your own.  Just make sure the socks you're wearing come from the same matched set.

Or, if you insist on wearing mismatched socks, at least make sure they're artfully mismatched.