Landing strip of the non-pornographic kind via The Four Percent
Am I talking about first class? Sadly, no. Still, on my way to Florence, I had a moment. In the prayer room of Abu Dhabi International Airport, to be exact. I had never been in a prayer room before and I don’t know what led me there, but it was the best thing I could have done during a 6-hour stopover sandwiched between a punishing 14-hour flight and a mildly less punishing 7-hour one.
I hope I do/did not offend anyone with my presence there — my understanding is that these rooms are multi-faith. And although I do not identify with any single traditional faith (which, on reflection, may be doubly offensive to those who frequent the rooms. Sorry everybody), I was seeking out a space for quiet, safety and reflection. My intention was prayerful, though no particular words were spoken outward, or within.
I spy the sign near McDonalds, of all places. In a corridor on the way to the bathrooms, a small door signals the way to the women’s prayer room. I feel instantly relieved that the room is female-only, though I wasn’t aware of a male-based fear beforehand. There is an antechamber where you remove your shoes and can wash your feet. I untie my laces and assess the possibility of someone stealing my Pumas and decide though I personally like their classic black design a lot, the fact they have started to form to the shape of my foot probably means they are of little appeal to anyone else. I leave my carry-on next to the sneakers. Even I, heathen that I am, know that wheeling this utilitarian receptacle with its squeaky wheels into a room for praying, and then snapping the handle down with its inevitable flourish, is a little off. If the case goes walking, so be it. Quietly opening the door I draw my energy inwards, to give any occupants privacy.
Inside, it is small and carpeted; already a comforting contrast to the vast, cold hardness of the airport. There is a young woman, pretty and made-up, in modest Muslim attire. Like me, she is shoe-less, casually sitting against one wall of the square room looking at her phone. Phew. If she’s checking Facebook, surely it’s okay for me to be here. We exchange eye contact and a brief smile of acknowledgement as I pad across the carpet to the opposite wall, out of her direct line of sight. I gently place my backpack down, sink to the floor cross-legged and close my eyes, mala beads in hands.
In the time-zone Bermuda Triangle of travel I sink, unusually effortlessly, into meditation. Becoming breath, the tightness seeps from my body. There are faint noises of women chattering in the corridor to the bathroom, but it doesn’t pull me out until CLICK. My eyes blink a split-second after the door opens.
Two women come in, one older and one younger. The young woman who was there when I first arrived is gone and there is an older woman in her place. So there are three others in the room with me. Now that I’ve assessed my neighbours with the skill and speed of Jason Bourne (although admittedly I completely missed the exchange of human bodies while in meditation), my eyes flutter closed again. I listen to whispered, murmured prayers, entranced by the breathy urgency of their faith. After some time, they quieten and start to gather their belongings, clothes rustling.
“From Indonesia?” one says. “This is my daughter”.
“Yes. You from India?” the other responds.
Me too I think. But I’m too shy to say, too scared to explain that I’m not Muslim, not even Christian like I was brought up. I don’t want to offend, confuse or make them angry. My spirituality is of the body and breath, of meditation and yoga. I think I came to this room hoping to be alone so I could breathe deep and sigh as I stretch my limbs, crack my back and roll around on the floor in a mission to massage my being from the inside.
But I don’t wish these women away. I feel connected to them in this place of sanctuary, though a little guilty (ah, there’s that good old Catholic upbringing!), like I have stolen this experience from that which is sacred for my profane self. To sit safe, cross-legged in my socks in transit, on this journey of a lifetime, is indeed a blessing.
And as I watch them quietly leave, I realise another: the simple sense of connection. Despite our differences, our chosen practices provide an anchor, a compass, a comfort, in all places and times. I see these women and my heart says Namaste. I glimpse their light and bow to it. For in this room we are the same.