What's cool about the prayer space is that the mosque wasn't leveled properly so everyone is praying uphill. It's a strange feeling praying on a surface which is angling upwards. I really don't think I could get used to it even if I came here every day.
— Zuhair Sadaat, “30 Mosques in 30 Nights.”
Zuhair Sadaat, 25, knew the Bay Area Muslim world was more varied than his parents’ 3,000-member, suburban Santa Clara mosque, where the congregation encompassed doctors, engineers, and other successful professionals.
In 2010, the UC Berkeley grad set out to discover just how diverse it was.
The result: “30 Mosques in 30 Nights,” a blog that clicks with American-born Muslim millennials.
Sadaat (rhymes with Zagat) visited a different mosque each night of the holy month of Ramadan, sizing up everything from shoe shelves and parking to the imam’s ability to inspire when leading the nightly taraweeh prayers.
Now in its second year, his catalog of impressions is irresistibly droll, candid, and revealing.
I turned around and saw a friendly woman looking at me. She was my ex-roommate's mother. I was surprised for a half-second that she was able to recognize me, and then I remembered, oh yeah, I'm one of three brown people in a crowd of 400 white people.
He started in his home town of Santa Clara (he now lives in Richmond), then headed North, then East to Alameda, Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond before stopping to tell it like it is in six counties.
Some mosques included only a handful of worshippers; others, hundreds. He prayed in beautifully architected structures, in makeshift holy places using the only available space. Or, as in the case with his alma mater, UC Berkeley, no place at all:
Before dinner, I’d asked my new friend where taraweeh was. I’d looked on the Facebook page and seen that it was at 200 Wheeler. No, it was at 100 Wheeler. He paused. Actually, it was in whatever empty room they could find in Wheeler. This was my first red flag that the night wasn’t going to turn out like planned.
As it turns out, "not only were the Muslims praying in random rooms on campus, they didn’t have a permit from the university to do so," Sadaat writes. Vexing the janitor who is supposed to lock the doors at 10 p.m. is "bad dawah," he says.
"We were making this poor man’s life harder by not following the rules, which led me to wonder: does a prayer count if its location was obtained illegally?"
Who knows? But one thing is clear. Sadaat loves his faith and his people, however divergent.
He throws his hands up at some of the attitudes he encounters, especially in regards to the role of women. Every mosque gets a "friendliness towards women" rating, showing that attitudes vary widely. If women participate fully in one mosque, another congregation essentially says Women? What would women be doing here? There's no kitchen.
Sadaat's journey to Mecca on the Hajj informed his feelings: “In the pilgrimage, men and women do pray next to each other,” he said in an interview. “It’s not even logistically possible not to. So I don’t understand why people get upset.”
Sometimes blog visitors take issue with his observations, like when he despaired that a mosque sunk money into a new minaret instead of something more practical, like a men’s room (the money had been earmarked for a minaret, they argued). But mainly he gets thumbs-ups.
Sadaat said there's much more he could be doing to promote his blog, but he's been cool to the idea. For one thing, he doesn't want to become recognizable.
“I don’t want people to expect me,” he said. “I want to be an anonymous visitor.”