Saturday, January 28, 2017

From Green to greens

When we arrived in Minsk last month, our taxi driver mentioned that he liked a new hypermarket we passed, called Green City. I finally decided to pay them a visit today. For the sake of exercise, I walked. It took me well over an hour to get there and I arrived hungry, so I started by looking for a café. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. The hypermarket anchors a new mall, but most of the smaller spaces are still empty. The lady at the information desk suggested that I could buy a sandwich at the Green City juice bar, so I went there first.

I waited in line as a woman called Anna served the people ahead of me. She looked glum. I couldn’t tell if she were unhappy or if she simply thought her customers were contemptible. I resolved to make her smile, but didn’t feel optimistic about it because she looked like a tough case. Nevertheless, the customer ahead of me broke through with a little joke. She laughed, and I remarked on how pleasant it was to see her smile. She continued to smile, more or less, as she sold me a beef burger and a chicken wrap, which she took from a refrigerator and heated in a microwave. I liked the chicken wrap OK, but wasn’t so thrilled by the beef burger, which reminded me of a stale Big Mac. This being Belarus, the “secret sauce” must have been about 97% mayonnaise. My sandwich was a little cold, but I didn’t ask her to warm it any more because the microwave heating had already made the bun tough and I figured that any further heating would render the burger impossible to chew.

Fortified by my nutritious lunch, I went to explore the store. As I turned, my eye fell on a very unhappy-looking customer coming up the aisle. I looked around. Nobody older than high-school age smiled. OK. I exaggerate a bit. I saw a little hint of a smile here or there, but this did not come across to me as a happy place. The employees in their silly green uniforms certainly didn’t light the place, and the customers seemed to take their cues from the employees. Nothing I saw made me happy either. I wouldn’t buy any of their produce, which didn’t look terribly appealing, and couldn’t find anything else that even interested me. I tried hard to buy toothpaste, but couldn’t figure out where they kept it. I saw wiper blades and underwear, but needing neither I left with a bottle of drinkable yogurt and a package of crackers apparently made out of cardboard. (I’m not kidding. You should try them.)

Still needing some fruits and vegetables, I got onto the Metro and went back to Komorovsky Market. I love that place. Everything is different there. It’s dark and drafty, but people inside smile. Customers chat animatedly with each other as they walk to and fro. Sales people beckon: “Buy from me. Buy from me!” I went straight to Terane, from whom I always buy my greens. She welcomed me with a big smile and sold me beautiful and delicious stuff. Her friend the fruit lady next door took good care of me too. Then I went off and found Lydia, who makes mozzarella cheese at home and sells it at the market. Lydia isn’t always there, and this is the first time I’ve found her this year. Standing in a drafty place over her refrigerated showcase, she wore multiple layers and looked somewhat inflated. I bought two chunks of cheese, one for myself and one for Terane. Then I went back to buy some basil and some more tomatoes to go with my fresh mozzarella, giving Terane cheese to take home to her family when I finished. That’s the way to shop.

For more pictures, see this month's album here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Minsk Mosque

I saw a news report a few weeks ago, telling about the opening of a new mosque in Minsk. Apparently, it had been under construction for some ten years; and finally some donors from Turkey took steps to get it completed. I was curious to see it, and didn’t have too much trouble talking my friend Natasha into helping me find it, since most of her students are Muslim and she was curious as well.

Officially, they give tours on Saturdays, but we dropped in optimistically today. We walked around the building trying to imagine the proper way in. Finally, we tried a door on the lower level, which opened but we found nobody inside. We tried all the other doors, but none of them opened so we returned to the first one, but felt reluctant to go inside without an invitation. Cautiously, we let ourselves into the reception area, where we saw lots of coats hanging in the wardrobe but I still couldn’t find a person as I went around knocking on doors. The last time I’d been in a mosque, in Kazan, I felt a little unwelcome, so I wanted to avoid putting myself into a position where I might offend somebody else here.

Nobody at this mosque, however, displayed anything but welcome. The young man who eventually found us brought us back to a meeting room where the Imam was lecturing a group of Christian ladies, explaining Islamic theology from their Christian point of view. He answered their questions with patience and, I think, a little imagination. I asked one question myself, about something that puzzled me when I read the Quran last year. The Book talks a lot about what men can expect in the afterlife (it’s pretty great) but says nothing about provisions for women. The Imam explained that women are cared for too, and that they can be invited into heaven by their husbands. They can get there through their own piety as well, and even invite their wayward husbands if necessary. I hadn’t seen any of these details in the Quran, and enjoyed hearing his explanation. We stayed for about a half hour, and then slipped out when we heard the doorman walk down the hall. He invited us into the first-floor prayer room, where we looked at photographs on the wall of prior Islamic structures in Belarus. There had been quite a few Muslims here before Soviet times, and the original Minsk mosque looked a lot like the new one.

We asked about upstairs, and he offered to get a key so he could take us up to the main prayer room. It’s bright, spacious and cold. They only heat it for their big religious gatherings on Fridays, but the thick carpet felt warm under our stocking feet.

The women’s areas, both downstairs and up, are much smaller than the men’s areas. Our guide explained that women come to pray much less often than men, and they usually rely on their husbands’ piety to assure their place in Paradise. I hope that works out for them. I’d show up, just in case. Now they’ve got a nice place in which to pray.

Note: To see more pictures of the mosque and all of this month's photos, click here.