JUMMAH IN HAVANA
After ‘Churchgoing’ by Philip Larkin
Once I am sure there's something going on
I step inside letting the door thud shut
Escaping the molten heat of Havana sun
It’s a mosque: carpets as seats, and mats
and some books, couple of Korans, few rosaries
For one to be reading before the Jummah, it's Friday
Some incense and joss sticks, unlit
Up at the front; the small steps for the Imam's sermon
And a tense musky fragrance
Worn by the men – God knows how much. Capless I
Walk in, folding the two ends of my jeans
By an inch or more, in awkward reverence.
I place my hand on the floor, run my fingers
From where I sit, the carpet feels almost new--
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
And who'd know what is this house of religion doing
In communist Cuba, in Castro's Havana?
The tourist in me and the sun above
Got me in here: I wasn't meant to stop, only pause.
Yet I did stop; in fact I often think about places of worship
And my thoughts always end much at a loss like this –
Wondering what to look for; wondering too
If Castro thinks about turning these houses
Into museums – El Escorial type splendour
Casa de la religion
Museo de la religion
All of them chronically on show
– free entry for the locals
– 10 CUCs los extranjeros
Better than receiving gifts from the Empire, I’m sure.
A serious house on serious land it is
In whose blended air all the compulsions meet
The ablution first, then the standing in line
– all very socialist, all very silent –
I cannot remember the last time I prayed
Nor can I bring myself to say a prayer today
But it pleases me to revel in the silence
As much as it did to hear the strange yet familiar:
The Khutba in Spanish, grabbing me more than the faces
Of the forlorn migrants;
Cuban Muslims, a lonely tribe.
When the call for Jummah is heard
Men and women switch off their phones
And face towards Mecca,
Same ritual if you are in Havana or Jakarta
And this may never become obsolete
Since someone somewhere will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
Gravitating to touch his forehead to the ground
Akin to kneeling in a church, bowing in a temple
Which gives him, if nothing, but a moment
I came in here, curious but mostly –
To find a little respite from the mid summer
But I got something more.
Discontented continents not on any map,
Illegitimate by the cartographers’ count,
Discontinued lovers not on any mind
Declared dead by the human heart.
Continents drift with time and grow apart,
Expect relationships to follow.
And even with highly sophisticated geometry,
Accept that the odd-shaped ones will go missing.
Cartography has previously appeared in The Devil’s Thumbprint (Bengal Lights Books, 2013).
Ahsan Akbar was born in London, and subsequently grew up in Dhaka, before moving back to the UK at 16 on his own. He studied at Exeter, worked as a vinyl record seller, bookseller, and equities trader in the City of London and Southeast Asia. His debut book, The Devil’s Thumbprint, is a collection of poems. He has written for The Financial Times, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, The Spectator, Granta, Wasafiri, The Dhaka Tribune, Scroll and other international publications. Akbar is co-founder/director of Dhaka Literary Festival, now in its tenth year.