Inside Park 51

As the sun disappears past the Hudson River, the call to prayer echoes inside hundreds of mosques and Islamic centers, and thousands of homes in New York City.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar (Allah is Greater)…

Worshipers reach for dates and take a drink of water to break their fast. They have not eaten anything all day. But before the feast begins, they prostrate to Allah in evening prayer.

During this Ramadan, like so many before it, Muslim-New Yorkers dedicate their efforts for Allah by fasting, praying, and giving alms. But unlike the years before, they are now forced to deal with the controversy buzzing nationally – and even internationally – around the proposed Islamic community center at Park 51 near Ground Zero. Just when we thought newspapers and magazines were scaling back, so many of them have invested considerably and continuously publishing a one front-pager after another about the “Ground Zero Mosque”.

One group of young Muslim sisters and brothers have found their way to balance both: Ramadan and the controversey surrounding the proposed Islamic community center, which – if built as planned – would essentially benefit them mostly.

Hidden between shuttered businesses and buildings for lease, the old Burlington Coat factory on Park Place is almost completely lost in the midst of Lower Manhattan. But every night during this Ramadan, it is injected with life and energy. A few dozen young Muslims make their way from NYU and elsewhere around the city to pray taraweeh (a special evening prayer performed only during Ramadan).

As-salaamu Alaykum…

The security guard at the door greets a female worshiper strolling in with her toddler as he keeps his eye out for possible harrassment from those passionately opposed to the construction of an Islamic establishment so close to the Ground Zero site. Though those opposing have been unclear where the invisible red line is or should be drawn.

Inside exists an open area prayer space carpeted with green and grey evenly-parallel stripes angled in the direction towards Mecca. That’s all. For now, it is just a prayer space. But the modest prayer space is awakened by a powerful – yet peaceful and soothing – voice reciting passages from the Holy Qur’an during prayers. Mesmerizing.  The flow of God’s words leaving the two young Imam’s tongues then enters the hearts of those behind him lined-up shoulder-to-shoulder in harmony. One of them is 18 years old and the other is 19. They may be young, but one can easily confuse their voices for that of a veteran Qur’an reciter from the Middle East.

They take turns leading, splitting up the prayers that last about two hours long. Occasionally, the one leading would get stuck in recitation, but the other offers support with a soft whisper to finish God’s sentence. The rare mistakes are much appreciated as it reminds the followers of their youthfulness.

The ceiling fans keep the air moving rippling the young Imam’s traditional Islamic attire as if he is soaring on a magic carpet. His voice lifts the congregation high above all the controversy weighing down the project. When you step into 45-51 Park Place, it is strictly spirituality. Everything else stays outside.

While the debate over whether the Islamic community center should exist so close to Ground Zero has erupted ferociously and refuses to go away, the prayer spaces are being filled by one individual at a time claiming it a community center by default with or without national approval or 100 million dollars invested in the project. Even on the weekends during this month of Ramadan, the center-by-default is having iftar dinners for worshipers to break their fasts. For the youth utilizing the space, their prayers and presence serves as the best Zaka’at (alms) they can offer in support, and the best possible support Park 51 can receive.

Since this proposed center has become the topic of the year, supporters and opponents have been coming out to protest every Friday while hundreds of Muslim lawyers, businessmen, construction workers, and vendors from around Lower Manhattan form the congregation at Park 51 for Jumu’ah (Friday) prayer. The prayer space has been active for about a year now, way before the media, pundits, and politicians became obsessed. The 600+ worshipers on Fridays are evidence that the lack of adequate prayer space in the neighborhood is a reality.

Unlike the professionals in the area, the actual “mosque” is less appealing to my personal needs. I do not work or live nearby. But for me, the proposed community center would still be the best thing since halal marshmallows.  If built as planned, the center will have a basketball court, swimming pool, restaurant and shopping center. While New Yorkers flock to the beaches and public pools every summer, conservative Muslim women miss out on any real opportunity to swim. But this community center plans to provide designated times at the pool for women-only.

And just like church basketball leagues throughout the city, the center will encourage our youth to join its tournaments, which could help to keep the growing disenfranchised off the streets. A generation stuck between their parents’ traditional ways and growing up in American culture, the community center can become a place where both identities would be welcomed and accepted naturally. In the outer boroughs of New York City, most of the mosques reflect their respective immigrant communities. The sermons might be in Arabic or Urdu, neglecting the American-born youth, and the growing American converts who do not have roots in Palestine or Pakistan. A community center in Manhattan with its sermons, teachings, and dialogues in English can offer newly converts a home for religious identity.

In the past few decades, the Muslim population in New York City has grown significantly. According to Philip Banks III, chief of NYPD department’s Community Affairs Bureau, “New York City has more than 100 mosques, compared with 10 in 1970, and more than 800,000 of its 8.21 million residents are Muslims.” The time for such a facility is only natural, which would serve the needs of a community so often neglected. YMCA’s and Jewish community centers have benefited their communities in various ways, and the proposed Islamic center will do just that, and fill a void that no basement or storefront mosque has been able to do.

If the community center is ever built as proposed, the fruits of it will be enjoyed years from now. So for this Ramadan, Muslims can only use the space for their prayers and iftar dinners inside the old Burlington Coat Factory at 45-51 Park Place, a sacrifice they do not seem to mind.

Ramadan Mubarak.



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