Joanna Robinson

THIS TIME I did not slip into a cab at Piazza del Popolo in front of Bar Canova where waiters in black bow ties shooed sparrows off tables. I did not see the driver regard me oddly in the rear view mirror when I told him “la moschea.” I did not ask him whether he had noticed the proliferation of Chinese vendors selling plastic gewgaws south of the train station. I did not feel my teeth rattle in my head as the driver ripped over cobblestones. I did not inquire about pending taxi strikes. I did not ask the name of the singer on the radio imploring “Torna, amore.” I did not seek the driver’s opinion of the current American president.
I did not suggest an alternate route, which I believed to be less frantic. I did not request identification of the ochre building, remark on the soccer game of the previous day which Lazio lost, or ask the driver to slow down between two umbrella pines so I could photograph a Quintessential Roman Scene with my silver digital camera.

I did not say, sincerely, “Thank you for getting us here in one piece.” I did not query the driver about nearby taxi stands for the return trip. I did not ask whether one could reach the nearest metro stop without having to walk a sliver of a street lacking shoulders and sidewalks on which giant Alfa Romeos tear at 90 kilometers an hour. I did not arrive alone, but with my long-time Russian lover, whom I did not marry because we do not believe in third-party contracts with the state when it comes to our affaire d’amour, over which we did not accord anyone power but ourselves.

I did not anticipate problems as we approached the open gate to the grounds. I did not hide my eagerness to visit the mosque. I did not expect to be blocked by two tall, thin men from Morocco or Tunisia telling me the mosque was closed. I did not chuckle aloud at the memory of our building doorman and one Internet site, both assuring me that the mosque would be open. I did not take a second to marvel at the epistemological vortex of Rome.
I did not turn away to face the intriguingly empty street that curved upward into the high woods of Villa Ada. I did not ruminate momentarily on the bird calls and rustling palms. I did not pause to inhale the bracing Mediterranean air of a perfect June day in Caput Mundi. I did not suddenly gasp in realization that the peace of the morning only resulted from the complete absence of taxis, buses, trams, and commercial establishments of any kind in which Italian employees with the best of intentions provide mistaken directions and worthless advice on how to reach downtown from a remote suburb. I did not wonder if my Russian lover would enjoy the challenge of being stuck at the gates of Europe’s biggest mosque.

I did not leave. I did not hesitate to ask if we could at least step inside the entrance so I could explain external architectural features of the buildings and grounds to my Russian lover, whom I did not identify as such. Meanwhile, I did not fail to notice two women walking the grounds, hidden from head to toe in a flow of robes that ruffled at every breeze, moving like dark waves, shape-shifting like amoebas at every puff of air. I did not succeed in making eye contact with them. I did not miss the look of the taller man who stared sternly at my bronzed shoulders.

I did not feel discouraged when the taller man still refused us entry. I did not miss the opportunity to reiterate how much we wanted to admire up close, if only from the outside, this mosque of the light honey-hued bricks, the creamy white travertine trim, the light gray dome, nested within smaller gray domes on the roof. And I did not forget to mention how the pavement design delighted us with those slender lines and curves of travertine running like ribbons against the pewter-tinted pavers. I did not say the domes reminded me of breasts, a roof full of round breasts, molded like wide-mouthed champagne glasses, pressing gently into the sky. And I did not muse aloud that on a winter’s day with sky the color of dove, the gray dome and piazza must look like they are dissolving into the clouds, as unreal as mirage. Likewise, I did not state how the wispy lines and graceful crescents of the pavement design evoked a delicacy, the sensual, the feminine. I did not think these observations would dispose the gate guardians to let us in.

And I did not raise other subjects unlikely to secure our entry. Certainly I did not mention that Mussolini once declared that Rome would have a mosque when Mecca has a church. I did not remark that the minaret at the biggest mosque in Europe is the only mosque on earth unequipped with a loudspeaker for calls to prayer, as the Vatican deemed it out of the question. I did not comment that city administrators had donated land for the mosque where it would be built in a secluded enclave in a declivity screened by trees where few people would see it. I did not ask the taller man if he witnessed the historic 2006 visit here from Rome’s chief rabbi and a delegation of synagogue officials and politicians. I did not ask him what he thought of journalist Magdi Allam, once of Egypt, now of Italy, who writes in major Italian newspapers about angry Italian imams. I did not request his reaction to Allam’s statement that “The majority of Muslims in Italy…don’t share the values of Italian society.” I did not probe the taller man for his views on Italian parliament member Daniela Santanche, who must use a police detachment of body guards after receiving death threats in 2006 for her public opposition to the veil and her book of interviews with Muslim women. I did not ponder aloud the paradox of women in chadors undulating past a mosque as postmodern as the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco or the Sony Building in New York City. I did not say these things because while the taller man and I both spoke Italian, we still did not speak the same language.

Instead I did not stop talking to the taller man about the mosque and grounds. I did not refrain from running commentary on notable features of the 7.5-acre site, such as the exhibition hall, the conference auditorium, the Arabic language classrooms, the Islamic library, the arcades. I did not omit mention of the myrtle hedges in the gardens, the trickling fountains and basins, the wafer-like panels whose only purpose was to look good, the geometric borders of decorative walls, the residential apartments for the imam and important guests. I did not stray from architecture and function. For I did not doubt that art, even just talking about it, is a solution.

I did not sense intractable hostility from the taller man. So I did not feel surprised when he decided to let us in. I did not expect, however, to be told to don a scarf to cover my head, shoulders, and arms just to walk around the grounds. I did not want to wear the dark cloth, which the taller man grabbed from the gate office and held out to me. I did not want to be masked and marked. I did not want my identity dissolved.

But neither did I wish to miss an opportunity to see the place beyond the frame of a photo and the pages of an architectural journal. I did not want my Russian lover deprived. So I did not refuse the scarf.

I did not find it easy to be wrapped away from the world. As a practical matter, I did not discover how to simultaneously take pictures, jot notes, and point here and there while holding the scarf closed at my neck as instructed. I did not have enough hands to do all these things and walk arm-in-arm with my Russian lover. I did not like feeling proscribed. I did not, though, want to pass up any opportunity for new experiences, and I did not believe that all valuable experiences come unconflicted.

Once inside the grounds, I did not mind repeating in English to my Russian lover, who did not understand Italian, the litany of details about the grounds that had gained us entrance. I did not have to speak strategically. I did not have to supplement my remarks with information about postmodern architecture, since my Russian lover grew up in Manhattan and knows a postmodern building when he sees one. I did not have to explain the human need for visual wit and ornamentation.
I did not have any way but words with which to transport my Russian lover into the mosque. I did not penetrate the honey-hued walls with anything but description. I did not lack for adjectives such as “lacy” and “light” and “swirly.” I did not grope for similes to say that the white, tri-part columns rose as slim as aspens and branched into bare curves at the top like ivory coat racks; or that the diaphanous, cone-shaped chandeliers hung like rows of bejeweled dancing skirts; or that the pearly intersecting arches looked like embroideries of Irish doilies, or intricate origami, or exotic formations of woven white coral under the sea. We did not let the exterior walls impede our vision of the fusion within: the Moroccan mosaics, the Roman travertine; the meditative bluish-white light, the playful spray of spirals and circles; the revived and the novel.

I did not have to convince my Russian lover why the mosque commands renown outside Rome.

These things and more I did not do at the mosque this time. Yet no one shall dispute how
even negatives always multiply into a positive.

Joanna Robinson’s creative nonfiction takes the form of lyric essays, traditional memoir, travel pieces, and prose poems. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Tampa Review, River Teeth, Acorn, Voices in Italian Americana, and Prime Number Magazine. A retired attorney, she satisfies ongoing left-brain cravings by teaching analytical writing part-time at St. Edward’s University.

“My Sicilian immigrant grandparents had a back porch patio at their Houston home that faced the fig trees, the blackberry vines, and the vegetable garden that Grandpa tended daily in his efforts to recreate the Sicilian countryside one mile from Hobby Airport. But we, the American grandkids, learned much more than Mediterranean horticulture on this patio. The patio was where our aunts and uncles repaired for their cigarettes, and from them we got unedited gossip, Sicilian swear words, warnings about the evil eye, and health advice involving anchovies. Things could get raucous.”