Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007

Ranard’s Picture Show for The Villager

Mohammed Nasir Uddim, president of Madina Masjid’s executive council, on stairs, right, as a guest speaker, left, addressed worshipers.

Madina mosque is Muslim cab drivers’ spiritual pit stop

By Alyssa Giachino

In the predawn chill of a weekday in early spring, at an East Village mosque the entryway shelves were brimming with the shoes of worshipers. Favored footwear styles were sturdy tennis shoes and dusty work boots, most with well-worn heels.

Inside, more than 200 men knelt side by side on emerald green carpeting, knees resting on the magenta stripes that run diagonally across the room to ensure that worshipers face Mecca. The men murmured prayers in Arabic and listened to the hum of the imam’s voice over the loudspeaker. Around 6:40 a.m., the congregants began to file out, jostling for space in the small foyer, hopping on one foot to pull on socks, then wiggling into their shoes. African men moved past Pakistanis, Arabs and African-Americans as they all emerged into the gray morning light. Many headed for taxis parked on the streets flanking the Madina Masjid, at 401 E. 11th St. at First Ave.

Uddim Akmmonir, a Bengali cabdriver, comes here for the morning prayer almost every day from his home in Jackson Heights, Queens. He wakes up around 4:30 a.m. to make it to the 6:30 a.m. prayer, after which he starts his workday.

“Before 7 o’clock, I don’t take nobody,” he said. “First I come here to pray.”

New York City is home to around 600,000 Muslims and has more than 100 mosques and Islamic cultural centers serving largely immigrants, their children and African-American Muslims. Estimates of the U.S. Muslim population range from 5 million to 8 million. More accurate numbers are hard to get since the census does not collect data on religious affiliation.

New York’s Muslims have emigrated from a wide swath of the planet, covering North and West Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They bring different cultural experiences and different languages, but share their faith.

“We come from other countries, but we haven’t left our religion,” said Mohammed Nasir Uddin, president of Madina Masjid’s 13-member executive council.

The East Village mosque is one of the city’s oldest, having been established in 1976 by Bengali immigrants who owned some of the original Indian restaurants on E. Sixth St. Uddin has been involved with the mosque since 1989. He arrived from Bangladesh in 1983 and lived a few years in Queens before relocating to the East Village in 1998.

In the 1990s, the East Village was home to many Arab and Bengali immigrants, though a decade-long wave of gentrification has resulted in many relocating to the outer boroughs. Those who remain mostly live in rent-stabilized apartments that have been insulated from rising costs, or like Uddin, live in public housing along the East River.

Uddin said that now most of the mosque’s worshipers do not live in the neighborhood.

“Most of the people, they come from the outside,” he said. “It’s only a small community here.”

Imam Yousuf Abdul Majid speaking at the E. 11th St. mosque.

Hacks’ house of worship

But the Madina Masjid, whose name invokes the holy city of Madina in Saudi Arabia (“masjid” means “mosque” in Arabic), still attracts hundreds of people each day. Some are professionals, many work in businesses nearby, but the majority are cabdrivers. The mosque’s location is convenient for Muslim cabdrivers to fulfill their religious duty of five daily prayers, because it has easy meter parking and there are plenty of customers on the East Village’s streets. Thus, it has become a commuter mosque, with an itinerant congregation that mixes the most devout with those who drop in when they remember to do so.

Seated in the small office in one corner of the basement prayer room, Uddin, the mosque’s council president, argued politely with a package delivery service that had failed to drop off an order of liquid soap.

“The doors were locked at noon?” he said, incredulous, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses. “Impossible. There’s people here praying. Tell him to leave the boxes inside the mosque.”

Uddin paced behind a desk topped with a plastic tablecloth and an ancient computer. Bookshelves hung from the walls, bent with the weight of books, ragged manila envelopes and boxes of rubber bands. In the 15 years Uddin has been part of the mosque’s leadership, he has also been busy working and raising his three stepsons and his youngest boy.

He left Bangladesh amid political turmoil at age 30, proudly carrying a bachelor’s degree in law, but little else. He worked harvesting vegetables on a farm in New Jersey for a year, then took a job at a deli in Midtown. Eventually, he started driving a taxi, a job that earned him enough to get by. In 1991 he married a Bengali woman whose husband had died of a heart attack, leaving her to raise three boys alone.

When they married, Uddin took on the role of father for her three boys, raising them in the East Village. His wife gave birth to another son, who is now in tenth grade.
“I took care of them, sent them to school,” Uddin said. “Now they are educated.” As with many children born to immigrants, the boys speak Bengali, but never learned to write the elegant script of their parents’ native tongue.

Uddin took classes in his free time and earned an associate’s degree as an accountant in 1998, but a job search proved unfruitful, so he went back to cab driving. However, in 2005, an accident totaled his car and left him with a neck injury.

“Luckily, my car was a brand-new car,” he said. Its airbags cushioned him against more serious injury, though he said he was taken to the hospital unconscious.

Although Uddin insists that Muslims are not impressed with material goods, he has found that the monthly check from workers’ compensation is not quite enough to live on.

“Muslims are not serious about money,” he said. “Even if you ask the cab driver, he’ll say, ‘I’m satisfied.’”

But the cost of living has gone up in the East Village. So these days, between tending to responsibilities at the mosque and his family, he dons a button-up shirt and a sweater vest, slips copies of his résumé into a modest briefcase, and visits accounting offices hoping to find a job.

Friday is prayer day

Friday is Muslims’ biggest prayer day, and at the Madina Masjid, over 600 people come to the midday prayer. People fill the rooms on each of the building’s three floors, and in good weather there is often an overflow crowd on the sidewalk outside. Older Bengali men with white beards and traditional knee-length tunics amble among rambunctious teenage boys who cheerfully insult each other in lightly accented English. Nigerian cabdrivers nod greetings to Pakistani shop owners and men line up at the halal food cart across the street, tempted by the billowing smoke from grilled chicken and onions served with rice or pita bread for a hearty meal under $5.

Aziz Kare, a Moroccan immigrant, works at the cart hastily chopping meat and scooping it into Styrofoam boxes. Lunchtime is the busiest, though he wouldn’t venture a guess as to how many customers he serves.

“I never ever counted them,” he said, laughing. Before the midday rush, he enters the mosque to do his own prayers, since it is more convenient for him than the mosques near his apartment in Queens.

The transition for Muslim immigrants in some ways has become easier as the population has grown and established businesses that import familiar products from home. Uddin remembers that 20 years ago it was difficult to find halal food — those items permissible under Muslim tenets, which exclude consumption of pork or alcohol, and specify how animals should be slaughtered.

“Now it’s available,” Uddin said of the increased halal options. “The world is very small. The price may be more than in my country, but it’s available.”

But not everything has become easier. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and more recent arrests of extremists, suddenly all Muslims in New York were suspect. Representatives of the Islamic community grew hoarse from repeating that violence contradicts their religion, that not everyone should be judged based on the actions of a handful of misguided radicals.

In 2003, the city’s Human Rights Commission conducted a survey of Muslims to measure feelings of discrimination, and found that 69 percent of the 1,000 respondents had experienced incidents of harassment or bias. However, only 17 percent said they had sought assistance from a community organization or government agency, while the other 83 percent said they kept quiet because they were afraid or felt nothing would be done.

“You can’t put down stares on paper,” said Wissam Nasr, former director of the New York chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations and a graduate student at Columbia University.

For many, stares are a passing discomfort. Much more alarming are the arrests and deportations that have affected hundreds of families. Brooklyn’s thriving Little Pakistan area lost at least 15,000 residents by 2002, many of whom pulled up stakes seeking more welcoming cities in other parts of the United States or Canada. Others were arrested and deported, some for alleged suspicious activity, many others for technical glitches in their immigration applications.

The New York Police Department reportedly has informants inside mosques, alert to potential terrorist activities. Nasr scoffs at the idea that violent radicals would hang around a holy site.

“You’re not going to find them at a place for people who are religious,” he said. “Those people are hiding.”

Galal “Jimmy” Omar, an Egyptian immigrant who has been coming to the Madina Masjid for prayers on and off for about seven years, said he felt conspicuous when he walked in the streets with his mother and sister, who cover their hair.

“After 9/11, I felt very lonely, isolated,” he said.

Immigration rebounds

Despite a dip in immigration to the United States from Muslim countries immediately after 9/11, the numbers recently have rebounded. Many new immigrants are granted residency through petitions from family members already in the United States, while others arrive on work or student visas. Many are awarded “diversity visas,” through a State Department residency program that uses a lottery to select 50,000 immigrants annually from countries that have historically been represented in lower number in the United States, meaning that China and much of Latin American are excluded, while African and Middle Eastern nations are favored.

The glare of suspicion on Islam has prompted communities to become engaged with interfaith alliances, grassroots organizing and politics. This is a progression that, according to Dr. Zahid Bukhari, a professor of Muslim American Studies at Georgetown University, usually takes decades for immigrant groups to master.

“9/11 accelerated that process,” he said. “It’s a basic change of mindset. We are here not only physically. Spiritually, mentally, politically we have to be here.

“Muslims are living in two feelings,” Bukhari said. “Nightmares and sweet dreams.”

Renewal of faith

Abdul Aziz, a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in New York as a teenager with his family 10 years ago, is energetically positive. He works at a magazine shop on First Ave. a few doors up from the Madina Masjid.

“It’s a beautiful experience to live in New York,” he said. “I never got any problem. You have to talk, you have to ask your rights.”

As a child in Pakistan, Aziz attended Muslim schools and learned to recite the prayers in Arabic, though he cannot speak it. He does not consider himself a devout Muslim, since he only goes to the mosque for Friday prayers, even though it’s just down the street from his shop.

“I’m not that good and proper,” he said. “But when I get the chance, I go and pray.” Most days, though, Aziz said he is too busy. The most he can manage is to step into the semi-private back room of the store to pray.

But he’s been inspired to go to mosque by Mohammed Halidou, a devout Muslim from Niger, who sells scarves and hats from the sidewalk in front of Aziz’s shop.

“Every time he goes and asks me to watch his stuff,” Aziz said. “So I feel like I should go pray.”

They are an unlikely duo. Halidou, 42, big-framed and neatly dressed in coordinated sweat suits, is timid but quick to smile. Aziz, 25, has a stocky build with a stubborn five o’clock shadow. He displays more confidence, frequently joking with customers, greeting them all with, “Hello, my friend,” and joking about their chances of winning the lottery.

Halidou and Aziz communicate with each other in English, though their conversations are limited to matters related to merchandise and observations about whether it’s the rain or the sunshine that keeps business slow on a given day.

“Sometimes I try to teach him Urdu language and he tries to teach me French language,” Aziz said. He refers to Halidou as “Baba,” a Pakistani term of endearment and respect.

Halidou has been living in Brooklyn since he arrived from Niger in 1997. He started coming to the Madina Masjid four years ago, when he got the job at Aziz’s shop. He does his morning prayer alone at home. He completes the other four at the mosque, ending his workday with the 9 p.m. prayer, after which he closes his shop to go home.

“Bangladesh people, Indian people, I pray with them,” he said. “But I have no friends. You just come to pray. That’s it. You finish prayer and you go to your job.”

Halidou sells sunglasses and T-shirts six days a week, which earns him around $1,500 a month. For $250 a month, he rents a room in a house with other immigrants in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

He sends money home to Niger to support his wife and two children, as well as his parents.

“Every month, I send like 300, 350 [dollars],” he said. “Sometimes, before the month [ends], too. If the little kids got sick, somebody got sick, I have to send. In Africa, to make money is very hard.”

Most of New York’s mosques are situated in residential communities, where immigrants have settled in clusters of shared language and nationality. The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, one of New York’s largest Muslim centers, primarily draws Moroccan, Egyptian and Yemeni immigrants, who speak Arabic. The Beit El-Maqdis Islamic Center, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on the other hand, has mostly Palestinian, Lebanese and Jordanian immigrants.

Koranic commuters

As a house of worship for commuters, the Madina Masjid draws a broadly multinational congregation.

“This mosque is the central place for all ethnic groups of Muslim people,” said Imam Yousuf Abdul Majid, who was invited to New York last year from Bangladesh, where he had served as an Islamic teacher since the 1990s.

The presence of Imam Majid at the East Village’s Madina Masjid represents an effort by the Bengali leadership to reach out to its diverse congregation.

“These people needed my service leading prayers because I have expertise in Arabic, English, Bengali and Urdu,” Majid said.

The E. 11th St. mosque’s linguistic and cultural diversity pose challenges that are not shared by all of New York’s Islamic centers.

“When a Nigerian guy asks an opinion of an imam, he may get a different answer than he expected or hoped for,” said Nasr, the former director of the New York chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. “The imam is the caretaker of the mosque. That position presents a lot of challenges: How can I reach out to the communities, community sensibilities?”

The use of the imam title is fluid, with interpretations of its meaning varying between cultures. It is often simply applied temporarily to the prayer leader at a given moment, though in the United States it is generally used more formally for a person, with an Islamic scholarly background, elected to lead the mosque, as is the case with Imam Majid.

Islam does not have a formal hierarchy and each mosque operates independently. Even individual congregations ebb and flow with little effort to maintain formal membership or track worshipers. Some mosques actively collaborate with other community organizations, of all faiths, though the Madina Masjid tends to keep to itself.

Although Muslims in the United States share their faith, interpretations of the Koran differ. Some cultures infuse more mystic understandings, others are more literal.

“We all read the same book, believe the same things, but the cultures are different,” said Nasr. “Islam doesn’t accentuate cultural differences.”

Uddin, the mosque’s council president, said the congregation at Madina Masjid is necessarily cohesive.

“To pray five times a day, you have to fit together,” he said.

As with many religious centers, the mosque provides a space for spiritual matters, but it is also a place for new immigrants to make connections and become oriented in their new homeland.

“If someone needs a job, they are telling their brothers here,” Imam Majid said. “They are helping each other, assisting each other.”

However, at the Madina Masjid, support for members is informal. Unlike some Islamic centers that double as houses of worship and community service hubs that offer everything from domestic violence counseling to immigration advice, the Madina Masjid is simply a place for prayer.

A modest mosque

“The mosque is made up of its constituents,” Nasr said. “The wealth of those constituents is going to determine the level of services.”

Some mosques in suburban Long Island or New Jersey, where many of the congregants are medical or engineering professionals, are more lavish, and have religious schools attached to them. The Madina Masjid, in contrast, is a modest place.

“This is a place that’s almost strictly business” said Nasr, who remembers occasionally attending prayers there as a child with his father.

The nondescript brick exterior resembles a typical East Village building, except for the lighted signs in English and Arabic that wrap around it, reading, “There is none worthy of worship but Allah. Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” Above the building’s back corner, away from the street, a demure minaret peeks up. Unlike traditional minarets, which are large enough for a person to stand inside and call the faithful to prayer, this one is only about 8 feet tall. The call to prayer is sung out from the front door, without a microphone, its only amplification provided by the wind.

At the magazine shop, Aziz says he believes the mosque fits nicely in the neighborhood, which is full of houses of worship of all denominations.

“In this neighborhood, you see a lot of immigrants,” he said. “East Village people are very supportive. I pray inside [the store] and they know. They wait for me.”

Jimmy Omar, the Egyptian immigrant, said, “This area has a lot of tolerance. It’s different than anywhere else in New York.”

He pointed out that the bar and restaurant crowds likely cause more disturbances than the mosque.

“People see that this place has been here to serve as a peaceful place of worship,” he said.

He said the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity sets it apart.

“You talk about the United Nations, it’s all down here,” he said. “People are open-minded.”


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