After having just returned from a stopover in Dubai, some more thoughts on mosques and their characteristics come to mind. It was Murcutt’s new mosque that stimulated this continuing interest – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/01/murcutts-mosque-meanings-sources.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/the-most-beautiful-building-in-world.html
We were in a silver shop in the Gold Souk near the creek, considering a few pieces of silver, when the tonal growl of the loud speakers high in a minaret somewhere, started to sound the name of God in the call to prayer. It was the middle of the day, and extremely hot. The sojourn in the trinket shop that boasted of its quality ‘Italian silver,’ was as much a retreat into the refreshing relief of the air conditioning as it was a giving in to the annoying encouragements of the spruiker, or a declaration of some interest in a minor, modest purchase of a decorative piece, perhaps a token souvenir,# some remembrance of this time in this different place and culture. All of the gold looked over-exuberant, too bright, too richly indulgent; the spruikers just far too eager to encourage, achieving the very opposite of their intent very quickly.
The presence of the mosque in the complex, shady shambles of the souk was not known until the intonation began. The building could not be recognised or identified, although the mosque was the immediate neighbour, intricately intertwined with the everyday fragmented bits and pieces of trade and its trash – the commerce and haggling; the chatting and touting; the sweaty, tolerant standing and sinewy struggling that is work in this culture, always it seems, left dangling on an ad hoc shoe string that appears fragile, crude and rough when it, in truth, holds everything in the flux of life, living, together with a vital, expressive, raw rigour.
Right in the middle of this apparent mess stood the mosque, fully integrated in the tangled lanes and alleys shaping piecemeal left-over spaces that were never wasted; every portion, however tiny or awkward, was used without apparent care or apology, nonchalantly but effectively. The mosque’s own certain identity appeared above, in its height, beyond the shabby canvas and rusted corrugated awnings tied with ropes to flimsy framings, as it declared the presence and significance of God, loud and clear.
There are two things that come to mind here: the unapologetic location of the mosque in the middle of the everyday; and the sounding of its call to prayer, that beautiful, rhythmic resonance that reminds one of other worlds while engaged in the tawdry events of life that touch self-interest and greed. One might say that the mosque ‘de-centres’ our attentions with a remembrance of other things. Here it sounded just as we were finalising our haggling over insignificances: it appeared meaningful in some strange way.
In severe contrast to these qualities of the Dubai mosque that was expressed in amongst the busyness of the souk more clearly only in the small patch of sky profiling the traditional dome and minaret – not as beautifully tiled surfaces, but ones painted a soft, monotone, ‘boring’ desert-sandy beige - the Murcutt mosque is slick, isolated and silent: a neutered monument to ‘transparent’ worship. Sadly, all of these unique features say something about the mosque in Australia: it seems to be seen as an unwanted place, a feared zone that has to be isolated for the different percentage of the ‘multicultural’ population to participate in without disturbing, challenging or provoking the ‘locals.’ In the same way, and for the same reasons, the Murcutt mosque is apparently to not only be transparent, but also to be silent. Murcutt boasts that this is a new expression of an Australian mosque - this smart new, ‘modern architecture’ identity - overcomes the secret, dark, mysterious burden of the traditional images to offer an invigorated expression, a re-interpretation of this most beautiful of building forms – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/the-most-beautiful-building-in-world.html It is as if traditional beauty, its wonder and explicit delight, could be remade; that the past had to be relieved of its visual baggage. This is the cliché intent of all things ‘modern’ - the rationale and self-importance of modernity, of things ‘International.’ Ironically, it is at Dubai that the very worst of this ‘new’ expression can be seen and experienced on the fringes of the old and interspersed in between.
The Dubai mosque challenges this explanation, and the Murcutt strategy in general. The Murcutt mosque can be seen as everything that a mosque should not be in a country that offers itself as a great example of tolerance, its acceptance of others. What might Australians of other faiths learn from this mosque other than difference and isolation; and that things ‘old’ are irrelevant, ugly? The Dubai mosque hums with an ordinary richness, as a bland and unselfconscious place for prayer, the celebration of life in a messy world of wonder and work. This is the place that sounds the first light of the new day as the kookaburra does, and reminds one unexpectedly throughout the day that there is more to living than getting and spending. Where else might this occur in Australia – only, perhaps once on Sunday that has now been demystified, de-scaralised? - (apart from on Lewis: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/03/stevenson-lighthouse-butt-of-lewis.html )
Why are we so scared of the mosque? Murcutt’s mosque only heightens our cliché perceptions, misconceptions, confirms them with its total isolation in the industrial edginess of Melbourne where it is forced to exist in smart silence, having no minaret - “It would never be used,” was the apparent explanation. Would any mosque dare declare itself as sound in Australia? We have here a gagged mosque kept in solitary confinement in order to avoid polluting place and things ‘Australian.’ The slick ‘new’ - modern, ‘transparent’ - look can be seen as a shroud to pretend that things are perhaps otherwise: a mosque by Australia’s greatest living architect – our ‘living treasure.’ The cultural ‘elite’ proclaim the work in a premature exhibition – could it not wait? - as great and grand. (Here one can only think of the film, GOLD, and the over-exuberant, foolish Wall Street response.) This silence and separation, so seems to be the intent, should prevent the resident Aussies from complaining about the Muslims and their ‘strange ways,’ while the efforts of the local ‘genius’ with the appropriately appointed Muslim mate, should hopefully send a message to those of this faith that we care; truly care.
Forgetting the domeless, glass-walled mosque for one minute; one has to ask: can the Murcutt ‘genius’ match the traditional carpet? What prayer carpets does his mosque have? Is there anything ‘traditional’ in this work? What re-invention of ‘old’ beauty has Murcutt orchestrated here, where ‘one cannot marvel enough’ (Martin Lings); where, traditionally, longing and delight intertwine into an experience of wondrous otherness suspended in an untouchable, unknowing knowing.
And as this text is typed in the quiet dark of the very early morning, light breaks in the silent sky without any celebration of this marvel other than the seeming joy of the nearby kookaburras, so-called laughing that goes unnoticed apart from, perhaps, being seen as a nuisance for those choosing to ignore the beauty of our world in their dazed dozy dreamings. If only we had a call to prayer to tell us that there is more, much more to this world than snoozing, snorting, saving, swimming, swaggering and selfies; yes, much, much more: yet we choose to ignore it, separate it, neuter it, to ensure that it is kept apart, that the cliché ‘Australian way of life’ is never challenged - “She’ll be right mate!”
No ‘she’ will not be right. Dubai, old Dubai, was a real delight – truly ‘un-Australian.’ We have much to learn beyond our silly, cliché nationalistic preconceptions.
For more on souvenirs, see: