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Muhammad Comes to Manhattan

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It wasn’t necessarily what he was saying, a sermon is a sermon, but the sound of it. The sheer sonics, the way Latif pushed the words off his tongue, how his cadence pressed against the beat of what he was articulating, the absolute insistence of his music. It was half-hip-hop, half-something ancient, passed along through the history of Islam, no doubt with some of that blood and conquest Robert Spencer loved to talk about included, because those events were in the history books along with the mass killings done in the name of all religions, and Imam Khalid did not seem like one to sugarcoat things.

And right then I felt very happy, very joyful to be sitting on the haphazardly swept floor of the old Burlington Coat Factory. It was, after all, a rare opportunity. The papers were full of how supposedly “cooler heads” like David Paterson and Archbishop Timothy Dolan are offering to help find Sharif El-Gamal “alternative” space to the Park Place building. More likely was the fact that Imam Feisal’s community center will actually be built (good luck paying the insurance on that sucker). Then this funky old place will disappear, to be replaced by its modern equivalent, complete with central air-conditioning, just like in those megachurches where the “real” Americans pray in comfort not enjoyed by the apostles that followed the man they imagined to be the Messiah.

What was coming out of Khalid Latif’s mouth seemed like a genuine Muslim-American thing, something arrived at from a particular existential place. Like all legitimate experiences, religious and not, it lifted you out of everyday time and space. For the moment, 45–51 Park Place was not in any temporal proximity to ground zero. It could have been anywhere.

A Muslim service doesn’t take long. You get the Khutbah, the Jumu’ah, and you’re out in an hour, a real businessman’s religion. Leaving the disputed territory of 45–51 Park Place, I walked those now legendary two and half blocks to where the Trade Center once stood. The place is a vast construction zone now, with hundreds of workmen engaged in operating cranes and driving bulldozers. The tumult is deafening, a whole other kind of city rhythm. My old man used to take me down here, when it was still “radio row.” It was a drag when they built the Towers, but we accepted it as the way of things, as Lord Shiva continually replaces the destruction he wreaks. So now, after all the wrangling, we’ll have some new buildings here. The Freedom Tower, a totemic 1,776 feet tall, is going up. The day I was there, a construction guy said they were working on the twentieth floor, which is already seven more stories than Imam Feisal’s supposed megamosque. When it is done it will be more than 100 stories; that seemed an acceptable ratio.

Can’t say I am that crazy about the design of the Freedom Tower, but who really cares what it looks like? Something has to go up there. The fact that it is rising, that is the exciting part, watching things change, right here in the Big City.


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