Tales from The Mosque

“No we don’t need you making pictures of us.” said the vexed-looking Asian man, “We need to keep a low profile….the way things are just now…all this trouble…we need….we just need to wait until it all blows over….not this, with cameras, not sticking our heads up, not in here, not like this…” …and with a deep sigh and dismissive wave of his hand he turned around and walked on into the prayer area of the Mosque.

Imam Vali Hussein prepares his sermon ahead of Friday Prayers, Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

This was only a few weeks after the terrible mass-shootings in Paris, and it was my first foray into photographing in Inverness Masjid, the northernmost mosque in the UK.

And although I had mentally prepared myself to have my presence questioned, and probably vigorously so, the reality was somewhat disheartening.

I could easily understand this man’s concern. What were my motives? How would I represent his faith? Where would these images be used? How would they be used? Did he have any control over any of this?

In such circumstances I’m sure I would feel similarly uncertain, and I did not begrudge him his anxiety.

The backlash against Muslims following the events in Paris, which had further fueled anti-refugee hatred towards those fleeing Syria, was disgraceful and had angered me. And I had felt utterly dismayed by the rabid racially-motivated nonsense being spewed out by large swathes of the UK right wing media. So after some deliberation I decided I could either let this dangerous narrative go unchecked, or do something about it. And doing ‘something’, however small it might be in the face of such rampant bigotry, seemed infinitely preferable to doing nothing.

But what could I do, living in what is effectively a small town in the far north of the UK, a place both geographically and culturally distant from the so-called centres of power and influence?

Hands appear clasped in prayer on the outer wrapping of sandpapering blocks awaiting use as the new Inverness mosque is renovated, Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

Well, amongst other things I’m a photographer, and I’ve learned from almost four decades of making pictures, that photographs can possess power. They may illuminate, inform, surprise, and they can tell stories. Images may take people to ‘places’ they might not otherwise visit or were unaware existed, and sometimes, just sometimes, they can go some small way towards changing attitudes. And most importantly if made with integrity and care images can instill a sense of pride in the subjects portrayed.

So I thought, I’ll take pictures.

Pictures of the Muslims living in my community; a small but significant group of people who form a vibrant and vital part of the wider Highland Scottish scene. If the ‘visual narrative’ about Islam in Britain that is being widely publicized is a pejorative one, then perhaps I could help counter that in some small way with images that show the overwhelmingly positive reality of the situation where I live. I guessed the images would at least be useful for the Mosque’s education and community engagement activities, that my own knowledge of Islam would grow in the process, and perhaps personal stories would unfold from mosque members about their lives and faith, and how they came to be living in the Highlands.

A miscellany of items line the mantle shelf of the fireplace, with a background of partly-installed tartan-themed tiling to reflect the mosque’s Highland location, Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

The Mosque’s website had mentioned that their recent information stand at Fresher’s Week (on the splendid new campus of Inverness College/University of The Highlands & Islands) had been well attended, with many ‘Introductions to the Quran’ requested by visitors, and gladly handed out. This had delighted the Mosque Committee and prompted the thought that they should increase their visibility and charitable activities within the Inverness community, and this gave me the impetus I needed to make contact.

Several emails were exchanged with the Mosque’s representative as I explained who I was and what I wanted to do — simply to tell the ongoing story of Islam in the Highlands, and the journey the congregation are currently making with the renovation of the building that will be their new Mosque.

I explained I wanted to try to portray in images the physical space in which they worship — a building with a rich and interesting recent history — and how this has become a focal point for Muslims in Inverness and the surrounding Highlands. But if possible to also photograph the people, and to tell some of their stories, stories that might otherwise go untold.

Charity collection cans for Islamic Relief are stored in an ‘Every Little Helps’ carrier bag from Tesco, Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

To underline my thinking I provided the Committee with links to some other work I’ve been doing, which might at first seem unrelated to the presence of a new Mosque: ‘The Tug is The Drug’ and ‘The Clootie Well’. I explained that the former is ostensibly about fishing, focusing on a small and insignificant fishing hut on the River Ness, but that this is a ‘space’ which has, like the Mosque, become a focal point for people to congregate.

For many congregation around this small space is less about fishing, and more about friendship, a place for story-telling and drinking mugs of tea with like-minded souls. But its also about faith too. To be a fisherman or woman, is to have faith, faith that fish are present, and faith that you will retain your footing in the fast-flowing river as you wade chest-deep to the point of becoming buoyant and have to confront the ever-present risk of being swept away.

Copies of The Muslim News at the entrance to Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

The Clootie Well I explained is also about belief, pre-christian pagan motivation writ large on the landscape in the form of ‘cloots’ — pieces of cloth, soaked in well water and left to rot on the trees. The overarching belief is that as these rags decay so too will the affliction that has drawn believers there to seek remedy. But the sheer volume of votive offerings has a downside, less obvious than the manifestation of faith that creates it.

The rags, wet with rain, frozen with ice, drag heavily on the tree branches and break them, create permanent shadows that prevent photosynthesis, and in the ultimate irony leach their dyes and chemicals into the soil and kill the trees inexorably and insidiously from beneath. But my belief is that although this manifestation of faith has this tragic environmental downside, it is when we cease believing that we can be ‘healed’ that we will fail.

Arabic script on tiles beside brown tartan ‘Scottish’ tiles on mosque wall wall viewed through wooden screen, Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

Shortly afterwards I was invited to meet in person with some of the Mosque Management Committee and spent a few hours discussing my work and being gently appraised. My biggest difficulty was to explain in words that the way a camera might ‘see’ their mosque would be very different from the way they did, and that my photographer’s eye would notice things they did not. I suggested I make an initial visit and take some shots of the things I observed, simply to show the ways I ‘saw’ aspects of their space, and then they could consider how I might build on this.

The images I produced surprised them, rich in details they’d overlooked, some of which raised a smile, and ‘framing’ their devotional space with a novel perspective that intrigued many of the committee: the brass lamp in the prayer area, seven feet up and normally ignored, became a gloriously intricate globe when included in one image’s composition, a result of holding the camera over my head at arms length; sanding blocks used for preparing wood for painting, with their ‘clasped’ hands seeming to offer a silent prayer; the storage of the mosque’s charity collection tins in a Tesco bag with ‘Every Little Helps’ speaking volumes about their charitable work; a quickly-drying footprint on the newly laid tiles hinting at the transience of human presence, and the importance of cleanliness in the Islamic faith.

A wet footprint on the newly laid tiles as the congregation cleanse themselves in preparation for Friday Prayers. Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

Finally I was granted permission to photograph as and when I wished, with the understanding that no work would be put in the public domain without the Mosque committee’s knowledge and permission, and the agreement of the subjects.

And so it transpired that I found myself being vigorously berated by a member of the Mosque congregation on my first ‘proper’ visit, as I went about my work quietly as Friday Prayers got under way. But in the gently humane and hospitable way that Islam demands ‘guests’ be treated, despite his intention to ‘scold’ me, this gentleman greeted me warmly, took my open hand and shook it, before remonstrating with me.

He did the same thing next time I visited, shook my hand warmly, then proceeded to berate me. On our third encounter the routine was repeated, but this time he commented: “You again Sir…why are you back here..do you BBC people not have other better things to do…and you make money off us with this work…much money…but you never give us any..?”

I explained: “I’m not from the BBC, I’m not a journalist, I’m just a local photographer, a member of this community, like you, but I want to show some solidarity with you. No one pays me to be here. In fact it costs me to get here, I have to pay my own way.” Then I added with a wry and mischievious grin “…but if I DO make any money with these images I’ll share it with the mosque, fifty-fifty so we both benefit…unless of course you want more, maybe 60 or 70%…would that be enough for you..?” and I smiled broadly.

He waved his hand, exhaled loudly with a slightly indignant “hmmph” but his face fighting back an infectious smile, and dismissed me, once again.

Ongoing renovation work, tile spacers mark newly prepared tiling work, Inverness Masjid, Inverness, Scotland, December 2015 Image ©John MacPherson

On my next visit, he greeted me once more, took my hand and shook it, and as he began his gentle remonstration I refused to let him go. I held on to his hand.

He pulled. I tightened my grip. He pulled harder to free himself, but to no avail.

He was trapped.

He looked directly at me.

I smiled “I’ll still be doing this next year!” I said, gaily.

He smiled.

Then he laughed.

And as I eased my grip he tightened his, warmly. A language of touch, offered, received, reciprocated. Then our hands parted, mutually, and in a display of dissonance he sought to repeat his dismissive arm wave but the growing smile across his face defeated him, his keen eyes wrinkled with mirth, and he walked off laughing heartily and shaking his head instead.

In truth, as is so often the case in these circumstances, we were united by the far greater amount that we have in common with each other, than we were divided by the small differences that separate us.

United, for example by a love of tangerines.

On my most recent visit, after Friday prayers, my cameras put aside, a group of us stood in front of the woodstove to ward off the chill air from the sub-zero temperatures outside, he split a small orange fruit and turned quietly towards me, and handed me several slices, carefully separated, the pith removed.

They were cold, but exploded sweetly on my tongue. And they made my mouth tingle.

(This article originally appeared on duckrabbit blog. It is the first of what I hope will be a variety of posts about Inverness Mosque and its congregation that will unfold throughout 2016).