The next day I made my way to 45–51 Park Place so I could stand in a straight line, toes splayed out, beside the Punjabi cab drivers, Senegalese fake-Rolex dealers, and Egyptian businessmen who gather there for the Jumu’ah midday prayers. For someone with serious issues with the impetuous, dictatorial God of Abraham, I remain a sucker for his services; Baptist or Hasidic, once the spirit starts flowing, I got to be in dat number. In all the doomsaying about the dire things that would occur should the ground-zero mosque be built, there had been little mention, on either side, that as many as 600 people had been showing up there for months to do their prostrations and reassert their submission to Allah and his messenger Muhammad, peace be upon him.
It was Friday, the Muslim holy day, so that meant there would be a Khutbah, or sermon. I had been hoping to hear Feisal Rauf, but the missing Imam was still traveling, so the speaker was Khalid Latif, the 27-year-old director of the Islamic center at NYU and the Muslim chaplain for the NYPD.
Latif’s name had come up in a conversation I’d had with a Muslim-American friend only days before. My friend, who was born in the Middle East, grew up in Washington Heights during the crack times, got his degree from SUNY, started a few businesses, had a family, and now rode around in a leather-seated Lexus, was very ticked off about what was happening with the mosque. It was all Islamophobia, my friend said. He was a Muslim-American, an American Muslim. He believed in the U.S. of A., hated terrorists, prayed every day but still worshipped Bad Brains along with most eighties hard-core bands, rooted for the Mets, and felt doubly screwed by 9/11, first by the assholes in the planes and then by the reaction of his countrymen. “We’re taxpayers, what else do they want?” my friend said. “We’re gonna get our piece of pie, we might have to wait, but we’re going to get it. In New York, you’ve either got a seat at the table or you’re on the menu.”
It was then my friend told me about Imam Khalid. “That guy is off the hook,” he said. “He’s like a rapper. He made me cry one time. He was talking about a guy throwing starfish into the sea, one of those parables, and all of a sudden I’m weeping. There was just something about the way he said it. He blew me away.”
It was a hot day, dead center in the middle of the heat wave that had ravaged the city for weeks, and it was hotter still inside the basement mosque at the old Burlington Coat Factory. Sweat seeping through your shirt as you sat under the fluorescent lighting, muddled speakers blurting out gnawing, indistinct Arabic, you could see why Sharif El-Gamal said he often felt less than proud at the “shabbiness” of Muslim places of worship. Here was nothing comfortable or grand, just these people from all over the globe sitting on the thin-piled green-and-gray carpet, because for many of them it was the only thing that seemed familiar in the great city where they found themselves. Then, attired in a white turban and beige gown, Khalid Latif began to speak, intoning the call to prayer.
I’d been to Islamic prayers before. In 1999, before the second intifada, I knelt in this same way at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Sitting there with 5,000 other people, within walking distance of the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was an interesting tourist experience, but nothing more. Everything was in Arabic, a language that makes sure the self-conscious stay in their place. At 45–51 Park Place, however, Latif, who grew up in Edison, New Jersey, son of a Pakistani cardiologist, educated at NYU, a local kid, an intellectual who could be seated next to you in a downtown theater, spoke English, American English.
Making clear that the “opportunity” offered by Allah in the month of Ramadan was something everyone must accept on an individual basis, Latif said, “It is not that this month was given to the community and as long as someone in the community observes it then it is fulfilled … You and I as adult Muslim men and women have an individual obligation within this ritualistic practice of fasting for the sake of the Divine. And we have ample opportunity to get ready for it. We don’t have to wait until the first hour or the first day, we don’t have to wait for that first hour to come in and then get into the mind-set that says, Now I will begin to get ready. Already I should have anticipated it, have a certain eagerness, not anxiety, but I should understand that this is something that will elevate me if I allow for it to elevate me, and there are things in it that are so unique that if I should let it pass, truly I would be a foolish man.”