Sunday, September 5, 2010

Aman's and Bassam's Ramadan Road Trip: 30 Mosques, 30 States, 30 Days--American Muslims Coast to Coast Part II

"La Mezquita", Dar al Islam, Abiquiu, New Mexico, Day 15

This post is the 3rd in a series which includes Lailat Al Qadr: Praying Taraweeh at "Ground Zero Mosque" / Cordoba House / Park51 NYC, and Aman's and Bassam's Ramadan Road Trip: 30 Mosques, 30 States, 30 Days--American Muslims From Coast to Coast Part I. In this post I have selected photos and excerpts from Aman and Bassam's blog of their journey, 30 Mosques 30 States. As these are excerpts only, please do consult the original for more photos and text. See also their Ramadan 2009 blog of spending 30 nights in 30 New York City mosques, archived here. Their adventures are truly remarkable at personal, historical, and social levels.

Screen shot of The Route as scheduled, interactive original here. Note the invitation: "We’d love to meet you if we swing through your neck of the woods! But make sure you email us at first because this route is subject to change."

From the Blog:

The First 15 Days in Photos [compiled Sep 2]

Day 2: Portland, ME - A Southern Sudanese boy stares me down in the playground.

Day 7: Charlotte, NC - The summer school program bulletin board displays the best artwork for different kids.

Day 11: Masjid Al Mu'mineen - Unfortunately, we had visited this mosque, but didn't have time to write a story about our experiences there. We'll get to it, one day.

Day 14: Denver, Colorado - The brilliant Shaikh Abu Omar gets irritated by how close my camera is to his face and sticks his tongue out in hopes of ruining the photo. If only he knew how he saved it.

Day 1 – New York, Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (Pt. 1) [Aug 12]

It was nice to be welcomed back to the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB) with its trademark green cement [see penultimate picture in this post]. We visited this mosque last year during our NYC trek. It was one of the most hospitable and historical centers we visited, so it made sense to start our 30 States adventure from here.

For those who don’t know, the green sidewalk marks the territory of the mosque — a safe zone — and, back in the day, when this neighborhood wasn’t the safest (“when crack was king”), it was the sidewalk where folks knew not to mess around. As the infamous tale goes, a drunkard was stumbling around the streets of Harlem. He was about to pass out when he saw himself on the green cement and dragged himself to the gray part – where he did pass out.

Imam Talib wasn’t able to join us for long as he had to go to the downtown prison to lead Taraweeh prayers. But he did put up a nice poster outside welcoming us. (top picture)

Today, Al-Jazeera was scheduled to meet up with us at the mosque. I reached MIB around 7 p.m. and the camera crew was already waiting.

Khalid, the reporter from Al Jazeera, sat outside of the stairs with his camera man waiting for us to arrive. One of the additions of this trip, that I’m not sure how I really feel about, is the extra media attention this adventure is getting. Of course, the ground zero fiasco and the numerous conflicts on mosque constructions around the US has added another dimension to our project. And that’s exactly what the direction Khalid, bless his heart, was trying to go into. And how can you blame him?


Aman and I finally came together a little bit before prayer. Less than six weeks ago, there was no real plan for traveling around the country. I was overseas, while Aman was holding down the fort ironing out the project’s logistics. I got back into the country last weekend and it was only two days ago that Aman and I reunited under the kind company of dosas and samosas.


Before heading out, I had to grab some CDs of Shaykh Alama Tawfeeq’s Quran recitation. I shared this story last time we visited MIB, but I think it’s just as relevant now as it was then. What makes this recording of the Quran so important is that it’s said to be one of the first recordings of an American Muslim reciting the Quran. Shaykh Alama Tawfeeq wasn’t known for his recitation nor was he a haafiz, one who has memorized the Quran. But instead, he did it because he wanted to show that it can be done.

I understand that it would be ridiculous to channel Shaykh Alama Tawfeeq for our 30 States trek, but maybe we are trying for something that is equally important and ridiculous. Why else do anything?

Day 6 – North Carolina, Masjid Ash-Shaheed in Charlotte [Aug 17]

Feroz has been in the trucking business for over 15 years. He was driving his truck from Canada all the way down to North Carolina, when the trailer he was hauling filled with electronics broke down right outside of Charlotte. There aren’t many Muslims in his line of work but he met one at a highway truck stop who told him about Masjid Ash-Shaheed a few highway exits over.

Speaking to Feroz made me constantly think about my father. My father for many years worked as a sales manager for a baking company, and would often be on the road 5-6 days a week traveling to meet with clients across the country. He never enjoyed a single minute being away from us, but my brothers and I always knew he was making that struggle so we didn’t have to.

Day 9 - Alabama, Epic Fail [Aug 21]

“CRAP!” Aman says hitting the brakes of the car. “I just sped passed a cop.”

I keep an eye in the rearview mirror on the cop’s headlights. As we move forward in the distance his lights aren’t fading, they are getting closer. Soon enough, the police SUV is tailing us.

Fitteen minutes pass and the SUV is still behind us. Not sure what to do, Aman merges into the next lane to see what move the cop will make.

Right after pulling into the right lane, the cop’s lights turn on. We pull over to the side and hear the footsteps of the cop approaching our car.

“Hello sir.” He says, shining the flashlight in my eyes and looking around our small Cobalt. We wait to hear at what speed he clocked us.

“Well, I pulled you over because you swerved carelessly into the right lane.”

Huh? Aman and I look at each other not sure what he means.

“Officer, I thought I made a legal merge.” Aman nicely refutes.

The officer stays quiet and looks at Aman’s license.

“Sir, this is a State ID. Do you have a license?”

“That is my driver’s license.”

On Aman’s card, I can read ‘Driver’s License’ in big letters.

“Aman sir, can you please step out of the car?” the officer asks.

This is not normal.

I stay put in the passenger seat watching Aman get questioned in the rear view mirror. Not sure what the cop’s asking, I decide to keep the laptop on and have our recent CNN interview ready for play.

The cop walks towards me and asks, “So where are you guys going today?”

“We’re on our way to New Orleans…” I reply.

“So what are you guys doing in New Orleans?”

Clearly, these string of questions have already been asked to Aman and now it’s my turn to see if they add up.

“Visiting Aman’s brother. And, well…” I said.

I wasn’t sure if Aman told him about our 30 mosques project.

“…And?” the officer asks.

“So we’re visiting 30 mosques in 30 days in 30 states. So we’ll be visiting a mosque in New Orleans.”

“Oh, so there’s a mosque in New Orleans!?”

“Uh yeah.” I’m not sure if this a rhetorical question.

The man looks straight into my eyes. I notice his thick southern accent, blue eyes and crew cut blonde hair. I realize that he was serious about his question about mosques in New Orleans, so I turn my laptop towards him and show him our CNN interview.

“See, we were just on CNN.”

I point at Aman and myself sitting with the CNN anchor Kyra Phillips.

The cop pulls his flash light at my laptop screen and watches intently.

“Cool.” he says, “So tell me.”


“What do you think about that Ground Zero Mosque?”

What the heck? At this point, it is clear that our southern Biloxi, Mississippi cop is fishing for some dirt.

“Well…” I finally reply thinking of the conservative talking points I’ve been reading, “For them to build it by Ground Zero is very insensitive.”

He nods his head, so I continue.

“I mean come on, it’s been less than 10 years and we’re still healing from the attack. Isn’t it just a slap in the face?”

“Yeah!” the cop exclaims, “I mean, I’m not pro-religion or anything. But that’s just wrong for them to build it there.”

The cop takes another look inside the car with his flashlight and smiles.

“Thanks for your cooperation.”

Day 10 – Louisiana, Spending time with family in New Orleans (Pt. 1) [Aug 22]

Before the storm [Katrina], the Muslim community here was very segmented. Like many communities across the country, the Arabs would frequent one particular mosque, the South Asians would frequent another, etc. etc. etc. But after the storm, Masjid Abu Bakr became a rallying place to bring people together, because frankly it was one of the only places where people could worship.

My brother has lived in multiple cities across the U.S. and said what makes New Orleans Muslims special is their resilience.

“There’s a welcoming spirit here that people don’t complain,” he said. “If there’s a problem, people say ‘We got through Katrina, we can get through this.’ That’s always the trump card.”

He added just being in the presence of these welcoming Muslims helped him cope with his own problems [divorce].

“I don’t really like talking about this stuff, but it was a comforting thing knowing I could with people here,” he said.

Day 10 – Louisiana, Zeitoun After Zeitoun, A Photo Essay (Pt. 2) [Aug 22]

AbdulRahman Zeitoun is an iconic American Muslim. But if you tell him this, he will shrug and change the subject. He doesn’t talk much about the book written about him or the animated movie that is in the works (directed by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme). He’d rather talk about his painting company or the masjid that he helps run.

For those who are not familiar with Zeitoun, I strongly recommend picking up the book about his life before and after Hurricane Katrina - Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans during the vicious hurricane and rode out the storm. After the levees broke and chaos ensued, he was arrested and held in maximum security prison for three weeks. I read the book last Ramadan during our New York City trek and was surprised at how much the book reminded me of God and his countenance.

I met him yesterday at Masjid Rehma near Tulane University and followed him as he visited his job sites and broke his fast at the mosque.

Day 15 – New Mexico, the Taha Mosque in Santa Fe (Pt. 1) [Aug 27]

Hakim Archuletta tells me it’s time to break our fast and I pull my smartphone out of my pocket to ascertain if it’s time to do so. He grins and puts his hand on my shoulder and asks me to look at the colossal mountain landscape just a few miles from the house we’re standing outside of.

“You won’t need that phone,” he says to me. “See that mountain? When the sun is setting and it’s no longer visible above the mountain, that’s when it’s time to break our fast.”

As someone who is constantly on the go and shackled to technology, me coming to New Mexico today was the perfect place for a spiritual detox. We pulled into the TaHa Mosque in Santa Fe, a pueblo looking building that a group of about a dozen people use for regular prayers.

Prior to buying this property three years ago, the Muslim community here for around 20 years worshipped at locations all over the city. Oftentimes they’d celebrate the holiday Eid with prayers inside of a carpet store one of the Muslims in the area owned.

I arrived at the mosque completely burned out from the six hour drive and lack of sleep I got the night before. I go inside the prayer room to do my afternoon asr prayer. I’m immediately taken back by the breathtaking view of the shrubs and mountains from a window facing me while praying. I can’t even imagine what it would be like praying here every night. Without even needing a nap, my fatigue slowly starts to fade as I continue to soak in the soothing atmosphere inside the mosque.


I live my life as both a reporter and a standup comic, so my day relies heavily on my smartphone and laptop catching up with emails, scheduling appointments and spending hours in front of a word processor screen writing stories or jokes. Spending time in New Mexico today made me realize how much I center my stressful life around man-made creations. It’s amazing how much more fulfilled I feel today marveling at God’s creations instead.

Day 15 – New Mexico, Dar al Islam in Abiquiu (Pt. 2) [Aug 28]

Bassam and I were getting ready to leave New Mexico for an eight hour drive to Arizona, but we took an incredibly worthwhile one hour detour to Abiquiu, New Mexico. The small town is home to Dar al Islam, a divinely radiant mosque made from adobe mud that sits over a mile up in the mountains. We spoke with Benyamin, a woodworker from Holland who lives nearby the mosque. He told us to meet him by his home and he’d take us there. To say Benyamin is good with his hands is putting it lightly. At the bottom of the mountains, he built a mosque that he and his neighbors regularly use for prayer.

Benyamin carved the designs on the door as well. I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life, this man is divinely gifted. May Allah continue blessing him for his talents.

Sadly, Dar al Islam is only used for special events like conferences and camps. I heard at least a dozen different reasons why it’s not being used regularly, but everyone I spoke to agrees they wish it was. Abdurrauf, a Belgian man who is the caretaker of the mosque, said one of the primary reasons why it’s not being used is lack of funds to run it. Plus many of the board members of the place are getting old and they could use some young new blood to energize the place.

I hope they do find people and funding soon, because this is no doubt one of the best Islamic treasures I have found in this country.

Day 16 – Arizona, the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix [Aug 28]

We’re greeted at the mosque by Usama, the mosque’s president. He’s a straightshooting kinda guy that talks to us in depth about the history of Phoenix’s Muslim community.The city has around 80,000 Muslims and a huge refugee population of people from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Albania, Somalia and other countries.

He said it’s great that there are so many cool cultures in the city, but what has happened over the years is the Afghanis have formed their own mosque as have the Bosnians and Albanians, etc. etc. etc. Segmentation is a huge problem among Muslims in this country. I completely understand it may be unintentional when people immigrate to this country, they find comfort by linking up with people of similar backgrounds. But in 2010, we can no longer afford to do that. Out of the over 300 million people that live in this country, only around 7 million people are Muslims (and that’s a liberal estimate). So we simply cannot afford to divide ourselves.

On the opposite side of the highway from the mosque is the ICCP’s future home, a colossal mosque that you can see from miles away. The outside structure of the $3.5 million building is already finished and the mosque board is trying to fundraise the remaining money they need to complete it.

Day 17, California, The Indo-Chinese Muslim Refugee Center [Aug 29]

Tired and starting to feel a little hungry, we arrive in Santa Ana, California and began our search for this hidden Cambodian mosque. A large group of people are gathered near the mosque and are passing out fliers. They see Aman and I walking towards them and stop us.

“Hey brother,” one of the older man says.

I smile.

“We have this live concert tonight and would love it if you can come with us. There will be prayer and we’ll be celebrating Jesus.”

I take a flier from him, read it and tell him I’ll think about it.

A block over, I see an open courtyard and three Cambodian women wearing hijab sitting under a tree. Two young girls playing basketball, and a group of young guys hanging out in izaars. Looks like today is going to be an interesting day, I’ll have to take a rain check on that concert.


Looking for a place to sit with my dinner plate, I somehow end up next to a group of three Pakistani guys. We all look at each other and ask ourselves, “how did he end up here?”

After telling them about the 30 mosques project, I ask them how they got here.

Malik lives about 20 minutes away from here. There are three other mosques that are closer to him, but goes out of his way to come here.

“There is no politics here. No elitism. There is none of those things that are found at the local Pakistani mosque. Everyone here is unassuming,” Malik says.


“Yeah! In those Pakistani mosques the doctors sit here, the engineers here, and the cab drivers here. Over here, there is none of that. No one will ask you what you do for a living and everyone sits together.”

After Malik said that, I couldn’t help but wonder what he did for a living — it must be Pakistani in me.

Day 18 – Nevada, the Jamia Masjid in Las Vegas [Aug 30]

Dr. Aslam Abdullah is the director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, the group that runs the mosque and is editor of the Muslim Observer, a publication based in Dearborn, Michigan. Before we left Las Vegas, we chatted about this whole Muslims in casinos issue and the complications surrounding it. He said before we point fingers at Muslims for working in casinos, we really should point fingers at ourselves.

“This is the failure of our leadership and institutions to provide for the social and economic well being of our community,” he said. “I talk about this in the khutbahs (Friday sermons) a lot and I tell people ‘Before you look down on them, find them an alternative.’”

He explained most of the Muslims who work in casinos are immigrants who take the jobs because it’s unskilled labor that pays well. It’s our failure as Muslims, he says, to help them integrate into society and help them find a way of life that doesn’t go against Islamic guidelines. Rather than condemn them and reject them, it’s our obligation as Muslims to help them.

“We’ve developed this ‘holier than thou’ attitude where we look down on people who don’t memorize as many surahs (chapters) of Qur’an as us,” he said. “But what good is memorizing 30 surahs compared to 10 surahs, if you don’t understand or follow any of it?”

Make no bones about it, no Muslim in their right mind will condone the concept of working at a casino. It’s tough to make it in this country, and many of these Muslims will go through morally compromising situations if it means that their children can live a life where they won’t have to. Simply slamming Muslims who works in casinos is too easy and basically pours gasoline on the flames that burn the bridges between us.

Day 20 – Idaho, The Islamic Community of Bosniaks in Boise [Aug 31, posted Sep 1]

During the Ethnic Cleansings in the 1990′s, the US government helped bring thousands of Bosnian families to America. Like most refugees, they were settled in quieter parts of America, areas that are less crowded and more affordable. And that’s how many Bosnian families ended up in Boise, Idaho. But unlike many of the other refugee communities that were brought to Boise, the Bosnians decided to stay in the city. Many of the Somalian, Burmese and Afghan refugees that were stationed to Boise fled to different parts of the country where there were more people from their ethnic backgrounds.

“It’s a lot like home here,” Merzeen, a construction project manager who came to Idaho 12 years ago from Bosnia, says, “the climate, the outdoors.” The Bosnians, like Merzeen, had no issue embracing Boise as home.

Soon enough, the Boise Bosnians were growing in numbers (approx. 2,000), but there still wasn’t a community space big enough to accommodate them. The small 1500 sq ft makeshift house they prayed the Friday prayers in wasn’t enough for their growing community and they needed a larger space.

It took 12 years for the Bosnian community to come together and build a mosque. The community bought out an abandoned church and built a mosque with their own hands. Everything from the wall plaster to the electric wiring was done by the community members.

Day 21: Breakdown in Montana [Sept 2]

“What are those crosses for?” Aman asks Ken.

“For those that have died on this highway.” Ken responds.

“Wait, how do people die here?”

“In the night time, bears come out. Deers will run around. Slippery roads from the ice. You name it.”

Aman is fixated on Ken’s mustache and begins to chat with him about his facial hair.

“How long have you had that mustache?” Aman asks.

“Going on 41 years,” Ken’s muffled voice says from behind his facial hair.

“How long did it take you to grow?”

“About a year.”

“I consider myself a facial hair aficionado, and I’ve got to say, you have one fine work of art on your face.”

“Thanks, I’m not sure I know how to respond to that.”

I see the sun setting and realize that soon enough we’ll be breaking our fast. And that’s when I realized how tired and exhausted the day had made me. One of the best ways to get through the day fasting is to keep yourself busy and now, finally having a moment to relax, my brain catches up with my stomach and it’s a terrible feeling.

Praying Isha prayers at the Montana State University Mosque

Day 22: Ross, North Dakota – A Leap in Time [Sep 3]

Bassam and I stress over our planned visit to Fargo, North Dakota. We didn’t expect our rental car to break down in Montana and the time it took to fix the car (thank you all for the prayers!) is making us late. It takes 11 hours to get to Fargo and getting there at a reasonable time is simply not going to happen now.

Instead we program our GPS to take us to Ross, North Dakota – a town with a total population of 48 people during the last U.S.Census. When my brother got married, I think there were more people sleeping over at our house that weekend than live in Ross.

Ross is home to the first mosque that was ever built in the United States. A Syrian farmer by the name of Hassan Juma immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Ross in the late 1800s. More Syrians came into town shortly after and the community built a mosque in 1929 after spending years praying in each other’s basements. It was later demolished in the 1970s but there’s a Muslim cemetery nearby where many of the original community members are buried. In 2005, a new mosque was built on the same land as the original mosque.


About a quarter mile down the dirt road, my jaw drops as we find the place we’re looking for. Standing in front of me is a cube shaped mosque with a helmet dome and mini-minaret pillars on top. My heart is punching in my chest as I begin to walk towards it.

A sign to the left of the door dedicated the building to “Sarah Allie (Omar) Shupe.” I don’t know much about her but I remember reading she was instrumental in making sure this new mosque was built. I think about what she must be like and for some reason, I begin to feel like I’m falling. Fast. It was the same plummeting feeling I got when I was 18 and a skydiving instructor shoved me out of an airplane for the first time.

I don’t know why I’m falling. Maybe it’s because I’m standing in front of a place that’s taking me back in time.

I find the cemetery about a hundred feet from the mosque. I begin reading the names on the tombstones and the birth dates below them. 1882, 1904, 1931. Each of them has a star and crescent symbol at the top of the stone reflecting a Muslim was buried there.

Some of the stones indicate the Muslims buried here were veterans that served this country in armed conflicts like the Korean War. It takes several seconds for my brain to realize tears are spilling down my face. I feel ashamed to have known very little about this place until I got here.


This mosque was built in 2005 on the same land the original mosque was built on. I asked her [Sarah's daughter Lila] why the original one was demolished in the 1970s.

“Oh, I’m not going to go there,” she said as she looked away. “I wasn’t there at that meeting so I don’t want to get into it.”

I can sense the question is a sensitive subject, so I decide not to pry. Instead, Lila takes me inside and shows me a framed collection of photographs of some of her relatives and family friends who helped pioneer the community here. She points to one of Allay Omar, her father, and one of her mother Sarah.

Allay Omar grew up in a region a part of Syria that is now modern day Lebanon. Waves of Syrians came to this country in the early 1900s once the United States lifted its ban on immigrants from Arab countries. Syria at the time was under control of the Ottomon Empire in Turkey and many Syrians fled to the U.S. to avoid getting drafted in the Turkish army.

Lila’s father and other immigrants came to North Dakota because the Homestead Act gave people up to 160 acres of land after taking care of it.

Greg [Lila's son] explained tensions would often flare among the Syrians and other immigrants here not over their race, but over resources like land and livestock


Bassam and I look at the time and realize we need to hit the road to our next stop in Minnesota. Lila smiles again and asks me to sign the mosque’s guestbook before I leave.

“I will never forget this place and the contributions you, your family and friends have made,” I write. “And I hope nobody ever does.”

The journey so far

I was delighted to discover this 30 Mosques project. Viewing and reading about Bassam and Aman's journey has been a pleasure, and a reminder of the vastness, diversity, and best of  the USA. Though people complain about how CNN et al. represent their country (or not), I always mention that the same media outlets focus on the worst, the catastrophic, the "if it bleeds it leads" about news and people in the USA. This project is a reminder about the broader realities, an excellent portrait of American Muslims where they live, and showcases 2 of the finest chronicling contemporary history through photojournalism, and blogging.

I look forward to Days 23-30*. I wonder what they will do for Eid Al-Fitr?

[All photo credits: Bassam Tariq; Blog text Aman Ali/ on Days 17, 20, 21 Bassam Tariq]

What are your impressions?
What did you learn from this journey so far?
What has surprised you?
What are you familiar with already?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Related Posts:
Lailat Al Qadr: Praying Taraweeh at "Ground Zero Mosque" / Cordoba House / Park51 NYC
Aman's and Bassam's Ramadan Road Trip: 30 Mosques, 30 States, 30 Days--American Muslims From Coast to Coast Part I
Aman's and Bassam's Ramadan Road Trip: 30 Mosques, 30 States, 30 Days--American Muslims From Coast to Coast Part III

*Day 23: Minnesota, Dar al Hijrah in Minneapolis, and Day 24: Wisconsin, Islamic Da’wa Center in Milwaukee are already up on their blog. See "Blogs of Interest" in the side bar here for more.


Susanne said...

I've enjoyed learning about various mosques and Muslims throughout the US in these posts. The background stories are very interesting as well! Thanks for sharing!

Souma said...

that is just too cool!! and the photos are so pretty!! thank u for bringing this to my attention, i like serial photography :D

Chiara said...

Susanne-Thank you for your comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. The background stories are really interesting; I particularly liked the green cement one from Day 1 Pt 1, the history of the first mosque in the USA--surprised it was in North Dakota!, and the Alabama police story--like out of a film! Thanks again for your comment. :)

Souma--Thanks for your comment! You are welcome, and I'm glad you enjoyed the serial photography. I think this would be a great thing to do in other countries or regions or cities next Ramadan. Their NYC 30 Mosques in 2009 might serve as a model for a city one. And great from a woman's perspective. Hint Hint! LOL :) Thanks again for your commment. :)

Jaser .A. said...

This is great, I really admire what you have achieved and how even the smallest of things, are in thier own way are the greatest on earth.
I have an ambition, that one day I will be able to travel the world taking photo's of mosques big and small while sampling local culture for what it really is, something that I know you will understand can only be done in person.
It's trips and experiences like yours that really inspire me, and I thank you humbly for sharing this with us.


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