An Arab and Muslim in New York

NEW York is an amazing place. It always gives you the feeling that you can be anything you want. Total freedom. I had been in the city for a visit, to reminisce about my old school days, browse the bookshops, and visit the New York University (NYU) masjid and Islamic centre that I had heard so much about on the net.

By Maryam Ismail (First Person)

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Published: Fri 22 Aug 2008, 11:32 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Post 9/11 New York was not that much different. There were announcements on the train about strange looking persons or baggage, and a new phone in the station to call in case of suspicious activity. I was different too. I was a muhajabah, one who wears hijab (veil). It was pretty much ok, but the stares were reserved for my daughter who also wore hijab. They're feeling probably, not only are there big terrorist ladies, there are little kids too. Of course I had the conversations; my colleague at work wouldn't let me off the hook. She would always mention the terrorists in Israel and Hamas, the kingdom of the terrorists. I finally got enough nerve to just shut her down. By saying according to who?

I guess she didn't expect it. Muslims these days are pretty squeamish about such things, normally they just tolerate such abuse and suffer in silence, for fear of being labelled. This is in part the reason of the miserable condition of the Muslims in the US today. In a country that has an Islamic past spanning back to 500 years, you would think that it would be better.

Still, there are a lot of good things about being a Muslim in the US, the fact that the US is a religiously-leaning country helps. Especially, when wearing your faith on your sleeve is required. However, since I have been back I have found that some things are better and while others are worst.

My old neighbourhood masjid in New Jersey had a new wudu station, but almost no one uses it. Seven years ago, it was a centre for free lectures, Arabic and Quran classes, and family programmes. That's all gone. This summer, when I inquired about Arabic and Quran for my daughters, for six weeks, the price was $1000, for Arabic only $800 for a month. Most of the Muslim-owned businesses had closed. Even the pharmacy was gone. And while there are halal foods, they are rare, and one has to limit himself to travelling long distances to get the food, cooked, and eat it. Since I have been back, I didn't even know that a Muslim has to learn Arabic or read Quran.

I had heard of the Muslim Student Association at NYU fourteen years ago, but I could never find it. Finally, I entered a deli to ask directions. I also asked to use the bathroom. They were gracious enough to say yes, a rare thing in NYC and they offered me a corner to pray in. They had everything I needed. I felt so taken cared of. They directed me to the NYU masjid I had looked for hours. It was a catholic church.

When I entered the door I heard the loud drone of a church organ. This is why it took me 14 years to find it. In the foyer of the church is the usual NYU security. I asked for the prayer place, she pointed to the room along side of her desk, three steps down. Jummah prayer had just begun. I didn't go inside as it was too much noise. The Iman's Allahhu Akbar was almost drowned out by the church's organ. It was a strange experience. The chime/churn of the organ, because it was also time for church mass, sounded more like a public execution than an exercise in interfaith dialogue. NYU is not a poor school, nor does it lack the real estate equity, they are the largest owner of real estate in the Greenwich Village. As I walked back towards the train I saw that on the north corner of the Washington Square Park (the Church/Masjid is in the south of the park), there is the Chabad House for Jewish Students. A three storey brownstone, worth millions, I am sure. Why didn't the Muslim students have the same? Every building at the NYU has a name, it's named after its donor. I guess there is no one willing to donate enough for the Muslims to stop praying in a church. That is not even the worst of it — their "centre" is a room, sort of homey, with a carpet a few prayer rugs, and few copies of the Quran. The day I went there, it was flooded. It was a blessing that the water hadn't reached the centre. The centre not only serves the Muslims that go to the NYU, but the entire Muslim community living in the NYU area. And you know what? It closes at five. There is no masjid in that area at all, so if you want to pray, there is a deli across from the NYU gym, they will let you pray in the back, but there is only space for two at a time.

The war on terror has gotten many Muslims so afraid that they have neglected their duty to help and serve each other; the young Muslims at the NYU are a miracle. In the village, where everything tells them to drop Islam, they strive, but they need a place of their own. If they remain undaunted in the face of the war on terror, they deserve a building of their own. Check out their website and find out how you can help. I am not against interfaith, but the Allau Akbar doesn't sound too good, with a church organ echo.

Maryam Ismail is a Sharjah-based writer

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