Three Mosques


My last day in Jepara has proved to be the most eventful of the three. When I expressed a desire to visit a local mosque, Lila at the front desk (and the manager of Bayfront Villa who upgraded me to the “penthouse suite” at no extra cost) contacted a local travel agent, Panji, who picked me up on motorscooter, gave me a helmet, and off we went.

The first site was a place of pilgrimage to the grave of a woman ruler, Rajapatni, in the late 16th century who provided one of the first models of a unified nation. According to Budi’s wife, with whom I chatted this morning for an hour after breakfast, Rajapatni’s story is one of the unacknowledged and under appreciated aspects behind modern Indonesia. After centuries of colonization by the Portuguese, British, and Dutch, when Indonesia was heading towards independence, there were factions that wanted to partition parts of the country as India had done. Sukarno argued strongly against these factions, citing the woman ruler whose mosque and grave we visited this morning.

The actual dynamics of the visit were to drive up and park, then deal with a big group of kids from a madrasa school (Islam is the main subject of the curriculum) who were snapping photos of me on their cell phones before their teacher organized a group shot. I was fascinated with these Jepara kids who surely must see foreigners regularly yet acted like I was some kind of rock star. The young girls especially, in their long skirts and hijab, were pushy as hell and had few qualms about bouncing into me to get their photo snapped.

Our next stop was a neighborhood mosque whose main minaret towered above the clay-tile rooftops in a green, black, and white color motif. It was still under construction, as it had been for the last eight years Panji told me.
My question about who pays for a big and expensive structure like this was answered “by the community.” Donations are collected from roadside coffers, companies and individuals provide funding as well–but nowhere are the mosque’s patrons listed in a public place for all to see. “That would interfere with praying to God,” I’m told. Quite different indeed from Shinto shrines in Japan that put a donor’s name up on a kind of scoreboard for all the world to see.

I was particularly interested to see how the ablution area (for pre-prayer cleaning hands first, then up to the elbow, then face, ears, nose, hair and finally feet) was still a work in progress. Perhaps they are not as strict about this purification as in the Middle East? Also, the very center of the entire mosque remains unfinished. It is the single place where the imam enters into a little chamber (mihrab) that points in the direction of the kabah, the ancient center of the main mosque in Mecca. (To my thinking, which is no doubt mistaken, this would compare with leaving the main altar of a church unfinished for eight years even though services happen daily.) Above this chamber is a big front wall that everyone sees when assembled on the two levels of the mosque. And yet it is rough concrete, as if awaiting some elegant calligraphy or abstract design that will complement the upper windows already in place.


The mosque faces a busy road full of the usual noisy motorcycles, lumbering trucks with bad exhaust, and the occasional car, so until they get doors and windows installed, it is hardly an oasis of peace.  It does look pretty cool from the street…and no doubt that is part of its allure although it seems odd that they can’t quite finish the thing.


Our final stop was the Masjid Agung Jepara, the same mosque whose call-to-prayer I listened to on my second day in town while sitting across the road at the town square park.

This is the “number one (agung) mosque” in Jepara, yet it is on the small side compared to the second place, with a single level of marble flooring for prayers and post-prayer napping on the side. When we walk in around 2 pm., there are probably ten men sleeping on the stone floor. The ceiling is composed of elaborately carved wood-panels and calligraphic passages from the Qu’ran that accentuate the upper inside walls. The feeling of the space is intimate, and must be a powerful gathering spot on a Friday when a couple hundred (men) are assembled (women sit to the side, behind a thin curtain so as not to distract or be distracted).


Aside: Though this sounds like segregation, it seems most women prefer it. In a well-intentioned effort in 2008 to promote gender equality at the mosque in San Francisco, the men decided that women could sit anywhere they wanted to pray, and that the thin curtain should go. It was the women who put up a fuss, because that curtain gave them privacy from the men’s collective gaze. And besides, when praying in Islam, one kneels and then puts one’s forehead to the floor in supplication. The last thing a woman wants is some man behind her while she’s supposed to be focused on her prayers to Allah).

The final stop of the trip is a Bali-esque courtyard restaurant beside a pool that faces the bay. Panji apologizes for the costly drink menu–$1.50 for an ice tea, $2.00 for a “mocktail”–and I assure him it’s affordable for me and not to worry.Image


He’s trying to start his own travel agency and is working over 60 hours a week so as to support his wife and a baby due in February. Like most men, he is a smoker, doesn’t get much exercise, and has considerable stress–which I boldly point out as a lethal combination, even for someone in his 30s. Maybe he hears me, maybe not. I wish him well and thank him for guiding me to these religious centers.



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