May 15

An Experience In Cultural Awareness: My Afternoon With An Irish Imam


Preface by Dave

Cultural awareness is very important when you're traveling and there's no doubt as you explore the world you live in, you'll start to notice and experience cultural differences. 

How do you notice and handle these situations appropriately?

It's hard to give a concrete answer, because of the large variance of cultures and situations, but a bit of research, experience and respect goes a long way.

However, it's still possible to find yourself in a seemingly awkward or uncomfortable situation.

Instead of trying to write an all encompassing post on cultural awareness, I decided I'd share specific stories from travelers who have found themselves in interesting cultural situations.

Below is a story from Jennifer Willis where cultural differences, respect, ​open-mindedness and a bit of luck all came in to play to create a truly unique experience and awesome story.   

If you have a story you'd like to share, please get in touch.

Enter Jennifer

I sat on the floor in the new mosque building belonging to the Muslim community of Galway, Ireland. I was there on a journalism fellowship to research non-Christian religious minorities, and I mixed conversational questions with my prepared line of inquiry.

Most of the questions were simple enough—e.g., “How many Muslims belong to the Galway mosque?” and “Where do most of your immigrant members come from?”—but some required more thought, like when I asked about the response of the community to the new mosque, and why some immigrants in his community were electing to return to their countries of origin.

And all the while, the imam was careful not to make eye contact with me.

Indeed, even though he was obliging and eloquent in his comments, he technically didn't answer me once.

Because I was an unmarried woman, the imam directed all of his responses to my boyfriend instead.

I’d been in Ireland a few weeks and had already interviewed Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, and a number of other Muslims. I’d made several attempts at interviewing more than just two Jews, but that’s another blog post.

Interviewing people about religion was not new territory for me.

To backup my religion reporting, I have a degree in religion from Duke University and am a graduate/ordinand of an interfaith seminary. Cultural differences were nothing new—or shouldn’t have been—and I was nearly anal about respecting and accommodating the codes of the people who were giving me their time.

Per usual, I carried a headscarf in my bag and dressed myself with an eye toward modesty when it came time to visit a mosque. I knew devout Muslim men shouldn’t be in the company of women who are not family members, and my previous U.S. And Irish interviews were always held in public settings—coffee shops, hotel lounges, and the like—for everyone’s comfort. It wasn’t Ireland’s fault I was caught off-guard.

I simply hadn't considered how a simple Q&A might present a possible moral breach for a holy man.

Mike wasn’t even supposed to be with me.

Spouses and significant others were encouraged to remain at home during the fellowship period, and most of the fellows were headed to locales (e.g., Swaziland, Ethiopia, Bolivia) which weren’t as attractive to travel partners as my destination.

But Mike was on sabbatical and wanted to at least go somewhere before he was due back at the office, so he came to follow me around for a week as I tromped about the Emerald Isle with my notebook, camera, and audio recorder.

Mike was a good sport. He’d sat through an hours-long debate between atheists and Catholics about the role of religion in schools, so I took him to see the Cliffs of Moher before I dragged him to the community center on a busy thoroughfare in Galway for the Friday prayer service. Speeding cars ruffled my loose clothing as I pulled my scarf out of my bag and covered my hair before entering the building. 

I thought I was taking every appropriate step to be respectful. I thought I was pretty hip.

But then I was asked to sit with the women behind a curtain during the service, and that threw me. Seeking a compromise, one of the community leaders offered me a lone chair off to the side of everyone. I wasn’t sequestered with the women, but I was set apart from the praying men. As I took photos and notes (I had asked permission to do both), I was a curiosity to all.

The women behind me weren’t sure what to make of me. I wondered if anyone worried I had some communicable disease. Furtive glances flickered my way from the men throughout the prayers and the imam’s impassioned talk, given entirely in Arabic.

An Experience In Cultural Awareness My Afternoon With An Irish Imam

The lone chair separated from both the men and the women (seen on the left behind a curtain). Photo by Jennifer Willis

Mike, of course, was in the thick of it. Although he was a non-journalist “civilian,” he’d been invited to pray with the men during the service—and, gods bless him, he actually did it, even though he’s an atheist.

The big meeting with the imam came after the service.

My interviews with other Muslim leaders (all men) in Ireland had gone off without a hitch. I had no reason to think this conversation would be any different, even though this time I was interviewing an imam.

But his discomfort was obvious—I was an unmarried woman, looking him square in the eye and expecting direct responses—and we were both struggling.

He tried to meet my gaze, while I tried unsuccessfully to keep my eyes on my notes or on the floor. We were off to a bad start.

Mike sat with us, observing the awkward conversation. I was supposed to be in my element, but I was failing—in front of my boyfriend, no less. But then the imam struck upon his own solution:

He’d gaze at the floor and listen while I asked my question, and then he’d direct his answer to Mike.

The system was brilliant in its simplicity. Everyone was comfortable, and Mike was happy to be an active participant.

None of us openly acknowledged the imam’s genius work-around, though it allowed for a much longer visit than I’d anticipated.

Somewhere along the way, the imam decided to treat us as a married couple—referring to us as husband and wife—even though he knew we weren’t. But that presumptive relationship allowed the entire afternoon to unfold as it did.

In the safety of Mike’s presence, the imam drove me around the city. He took us to the small house Galway’s Muslim community was using as a learning center. We sat on the floor drinking Pepsi while we talked about how welcoming the Galway community had been to its Muslim residents, and how Arabic was frequently the single common language among newly Irish Muslims emigrating from countries across the globe.

We piled into the car again, and the imam drove us out into to a housing development where a new mosque was being established. We had the building entirely to ourselves, and he imam fed us a spontaneous meal of chicken and fruit.

We even sat on cushions in the beautifully appointed sanctuary space while I asked about the challenges of being both Irish and Muslim, and the imam told Mike about how some families struggled with traditional observance while their kids were growing up as Westerners.

Then he took us into the basement to show us the mosque’s recreational space, and he and Mike engaged in a friendly game of ping-pong. Ping-pong!

I had come to Galway for what I thought would be a straightforward interview—you know, the kind where I introduce myself, ask my questions and elicit thoughtful responses, and then leave. The kind of interview normally taking an hour or two at most—though, in Ireland, I learned to allow a good bit more time for even mundane conversations.

Instead, I watched my boyfriend play ping-pong with the imam.

An Experience In Cultural Awareness My Afternoon With An Irish Imam

Mike and the imam play ping-pong. Photo by Jennifer Willis

As the hour for evening prayers drew near, the imam bundled us into his little hatchback and drove us to the Galway bus station.

As before, I huddled in the backseat while Mike and the imam conversed up front. The imam remarked to Mike I’d kept my headscarf firmly in place for the entire afternoon, even when we weren’t inside any sanctuary. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it. I was trying to be respectful—and it was a lot easier to keep the thing on rather than be tying and untying it all afternoon—but I kept quiet.

The imam chuckled as he asked Mike, “Do you like your wife to be covered? Maybe you’ll want her to cover all the time?” Both men knew that was never going to happen, and they laughed together at my expense.

It was dark—late afternoon in October—when the imam dropped us off to catch the bus back to Dublin. I was exhausted, still a bit dumbfounded, and excited.

I’d gotten to spend most of the day with this generous and astute holy man. But what if Mike hadn’t been visiting?

Would my interview have been limited to a few uncomfortable minutes at the community center as the imam and I struggled with our words and conduct, followed by an early return to Dublin? Or might I have been passed off to someone else—someone more comfortable dealing with a woman, but someone less familiar with the inner workings of an Irish mosque?

It was a lucky break. I should have anticipated the potential problem, but I didn’t. I doubt I could get away with writing Mike’s travel expenses into future story budgets, but this experience has led me to be more sensitive to cultural issues large and small—and to be more appreciative of an easy-going partner.

Jennifer WillisAuthor, Writer & Editor

Jennifer is an author, writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction focuses on urban fantasy and playful mayhem, and her non-fiction covers topics related to living, spirituality/religion, sustainability and health. Her articles have appeared in The Oregonian, Christian Science Monitor, SalonThe Portland Tribune, The Writer, Spirituality & Health, and others.  You can connect with her through her website


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