The Back Stairwell

By Saamiyah Ali-Mohammed


The whole earth is a masjid (place for prayer) and pure,

the Prophet Muhammad said.


Frigid winter wind seeps in through the doorway and ruffles

my purple crepe headscarf. Icy mist frosts the floor-to-ceiling

window. I pray for the first time in the back stairwell of the Davis

Building at the University of Toronto Mississauga.


A fleece glove lies abandoned on the windowsill. A fly smacks

into the window and buzzes down the glass. My toes curl on the

cement. Professor Khan’s voice squawks over a microphone in the

adjoining lecture hall. He answers students’ questions during the

ten-minute break, too short a break to walk to the prayer room.


A door opens and voices echo in the stairwell above me. The door

whooshes shut. Boots clunk on the stairs. The door that leads into

the lecture hall thuds open against the concrete wall.


“Bipolar involves both depressive and manic episodes,” Professor

Khan says. “On the other hand, depression—”


The door swings closed and muffles Professor Khan’s voice.


I stand in qiyām. I learned at age three to fold my right hand over

my left hand and then place them both on my chest. I learned to fix

my eyes on the floor and memorized verses from the Qu’rān.


I look down, rest my hands on my chest and whisper verses into the



37. [Abraham said] “O our Lord! I have made some

of my offspring to dwell in an uncultivable valley

by Your Sacred House (Ka’bah), so that they may

perform prayer...

40. “O my Lord, make me and my offspring

among those who perform prayer. And accept

my invocation.”


I bow down in rukū‘ and splay my fingers over my knees. I keep my

back straight while I bow and after I rise.


I crouch in sujūd and the grain of the concrete floor digs into my

forehead. In Arabic, sujūd means “to submit.” In prayer, sujūd refers

to prostration and the placement of seven body parts on the floor:

the forehead (including the nose), both hands, both knees and the

bottoms of the toes of both feet. Sujūd symbolizes complete submission

to God in all aspects of life.


I sit up and then prostrate again. The Prophet Muhammad sometimes

recited verses aloud in qiyām. His companions, tribal leaders

and jinns (spiritual beings) stopped to listen.


When in sujūd, he only whispered.


The wind whistles. A toilet flushes in the women’s washroom

across the hall. My eyelids droop. I mouth the words.


The door at the top of the staircase swings open and rattles

against the wall. Dust puffs up like talcum powder. A guy and a girl

walk down the stairs. Coffee sloshes onto the steps. The guy giggles,

steps onto the landing and stops mid-giggle.


My heart beats faster. The floor bites into my knees. I hiss my

praise of God.


I jump up, crack my knuckles and murmur under my breath. My

lips fumble and I mispronounce all the Arabic words.


1. Say: He is Allah, the one and only

2. Allah, the eternal, absolute

3. He begetteth not nor is He begotten.

4. And there is none like unto Him.


I stare at the replica of the Ka‘bah (Muslim house of worship in

Mecca) woven into the top of my dark blue sajjadah, a prayer mat

that Muslims orient to face the Ka‘bah before we begin prayer. My

sneakers sit at its edge.


I rock on the balls of my bare feet.


The girl’s heeled boots click and the boy’s sneakers squelch in a

musical beat as they pass. “Come on,” she says. The door behind me

creaks open and bangs closed. The clicks fade as they walk down the



I bow down, straighten, and fall into sujūd. My glasses clack

against the concrete. I sit back on my heels, praise the Prophet,

then mutter, “Assalamu alaikum (Peace be upon you).” The angels

greeted the first man and prophet, Prophet Adam, with these words.

Muslims greet each other with these words. We also say assalamu

alaikum to the angels, and to the worshippers left and right of us to

signify the end of the prayer.


A blonde hair clings to the hem of my sajjadah. I brush off the

hair, fold my sajjadah into a rectangle and tuck it into my coat

pocket. I yank on my running shoes, run up the stairs and duck

into class.


“Where were you?” asks Amanjit as I slide back into the seat next

to her.


“I bought a coffee,” I say.


Amanjit frowns. “I was there.”


“I was…I was praying, actually,” I say.


“Oh,” she says. “You could have just said so.”