My American Son
By Ahmed Nassef
It was the beginning of the 4th of July weekend, and I decided to take my 4-year old son, Ali, to the Friday prayer at my favorite mosque, Masjid Al-Farah, the Mosque of Happiness, in New York City.
Ali was excited, although I had a feeling his enthusiasm had more to do with our custom of stopping by the children's section at a bookstore whenever we're in Manhattan. The Happy Mosque, as I like to refer to it, is the national headquarters of the fast-growing Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi order located in Tribeca, within walking distance from where the World Trade Center Towers once stood, and from where the audacious new Freedom Tower is being erected.
I get a happy feeling as soon as I enter the Happy Mosque. Unlike some others, this mosque feels welcoming, open. Perhaps I wouldn't feel quite the same if I were a woman-although women pray in the main hall, they are still relegated to a tiny spot behind the men. (Things are decidedly more inclusive when Shaykha Fariha, the head of the order, holds her weekly remembrance ceremony, or dhikr, on Thursday evenings.)
The small main prayer area was a bit plainer than usual today-on past visits, I had seen flowers and candles near the mihrab, the niche marking the direction of Mecca that worshippers face during prayer. Today, there were just the beautiful Persian rugs and the big green round plaques hung high on the walls-Allah, Muhammad, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Hasan, Husayn.
We were early, and Ali immediately wanted to climb the steep stairs and explore. As usual, I just followed-Ali rarely waits for my consent.
He raced up the stairs to the second level-another open space, this time with plaques bearing the names of Fatima, Khadija and Aisha-the most important women in the Prophet's life.
Ali ran though the hall, past the kitchen, and stopped at the men's bathroom, where he stood enthralled by the scene of half a dozen West African brothers performing the wudu, the ritual ablutions prior to prayer. He just loved that long sink, where everyone was rinsing their feet-he insisted on putting on a pair of the communal thong slippers and washing his feet in the cool sink too. Everyone gave him the broadest smiles. He felt welcomed. As we came out of the bathroom, he told me, "Baba, I love this mosque."
We went back downstairs to wait for the Khutba. It was a hot muggy afternoon in New York City, and the hours on the commuter train and the steamy subway connections (the Shuttle to Times Square then the 9 Train to Franklin Street) finally got to him-he fell asleep.
The sermon began, a young man substituting for the regular imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf. Speaking in lightly accented English, the day's imam was not especially charismatic, speaking in such a low voice sometimes that one had to strain to hear. But his words reminded me of why I like the Happy Mosque. I didn't hear one word of blame in his sermon. At one point, he started describing the ignorance that is so prevalent in our world. But instead of employing condescension and self-righteousness, he reminded us of the value of ignorance. "Ignorance is a precondition in our life," he said. It was a classic Sufi message: without going through the stage of ignorance, one can never truly gain knowledge; without knowing the darkness of night, one can never appreciate the brightness of day. The key is in keeping our hearts open to knowledge when it comes. He peppered his sermon with quotes from the Qur'an, Mevlana Rumi, and Hafez.
Although the place was filled to the rafters-you could hear a pin drop, except for the imam's soft voice, and Ali's snoring.
Heads turned in my direction, quickly lowering their eyes toward this peaceful-looking child. If there was ever the slightest trace of annoyance in their gazes, that instantly changed. Once again, I saw only smiles. When I self-consciously reached for Ali to wake him, one man motioned to me with his right arm to let him keep resting.
Looking around during the khutba, I saw a magnificently diverse sea of faces. Perhaps half the worshippers were West Africans, the rest a mix of American reverts, Turks, South Asians, Arabs. I noticed one middle-aged man intensely listening to the sermon-he was wearing a blue yarmulke.
Ali finally woke up as the prayer ended. We sat on a bench on the street to put on our shoes. Several of our fellow mosque-goers came up to him. "Aleiku-S'lam" he kept responding to their As-salamu Alaykums. One of them shook his hands and said to him, "Hello, my Muslim brother." Ali smiled.
We walked around Tribeca and Soho, making the requisite stop at the huge and wonderful Scholastic Bookstore on Broadway after splitting a Tuna and Avocado sandwich for lunch. Ali's eyes widened when he saw a huge mural at the entrance depicting his hero, Captain Underpants. We bought a Shrek 2 Chess Set, another one to add to his collection (Ali's on a mission to learn enough about chess to finally beat his Giddo on his next visit to Cairo).
As we walked down Prince Street, we saw a few artists selling their work on the sidewalk. One especially struck him-he stood there for several minutes, enthralled by the bright paintings of Caribbean artist Lincoln Cyrus. Cyrus brought a sketchbook and asked Ali to draw him something. Ali proudly scribbled some circles with a marker, then signed his name, pronouncing each letter as he did, "A... L... I." One day, he wanted to be an artist like this man, he told me. Cyrus disappeared for a second behind the display table and came back with one of his paintings, "Faces in the Sky." "You gave me your drawing, now I want to give you one of mine," he said to Ali. He signed the back of the canvas and handed it to Ali, who was now beaming. We walked another block and ran into a bunch of people registering others to vote and holding big "Beat Bush" signs. When I told Ali what the signs said, he went up to them and said, "My baba and I don't like President Bush either. We're voting for John Kerry." They laughed-and I realized that may be I should start telling Ali about the "Kerry only in swing states" voting strategy.
On Sunday, we visited my brother-in-law who had invited us to a barbecue at his very exclusive club. A Greek American friend came by, thrilled by Greece's first-ever win of the European Soccer Championship; he had just come from watching the game at a Turkish restaurant-all the Turks in the place were rooting for the Greeks, he told us. Then we went to a park on the river to watch the local town's fireworks show. Ali sat next to his beloved cousin, Jack-they looked like they were on top of the world.
On the drive back, Ali noticed a huge Bronx Zoo "Count Fruit-ula" billboard, a smaller version of which he had seen on the subway two days before. That got him talking about how he didn't like the fact that animals at the zoo lived so far away from home. He wanted to figure out a way to open up their cages and bring them back to their families in the jungles, forests and deserts of the world.
I told him may be when he gets older, he can help make a law that frees the animals, closes down all the zoos and gives new jobs to all the zoo workers. He replied that he wanted to write a letter to President John Kerry to ask him to do that. Then he remembered another pet project-establishing a "free food aisle" in all supermarkets, so that people who didn't have enough money could get whatever they wanted without having to pay.
"Baba, can you help me write a letter to President John Kerry to tell him to make a free food aisle?" he asked.
"Yes, habibi, but why don't you close your eyes and rest now," I answered. I thought about the remarkable wisdom of children, how so much of parenting and schooling is spent conditioning them to be more selfish, more "practical," how we had to struggle to keep even a flicker of a child's natural wisdom and compassion in him as he grew older.
Then I remembered the Islamic concept of Fitra, how all humans are born with a divine gift of goodness. Our challenge as humans is how to find that compassion and love underneath the many layers of societal conditioning.
As I think back now on the weekend and the images-the loving culturally diverse congregation at the mosque; the Caribbean artist generously parting with his creation in order to inspire a child whom he may never meet again; the anti-Bush voter registration people; the Turkish waiters rooting for the Greeks; the two cousins who together form a mÈlange of Irish, Italian, Egyptian, and German ancestry; even the disturbingly large rendering of Captain Underpants-I realize that this is the America I love, the America of generous, open-hearted people; the America that transcends cultural and religious barriers; the America that encourages dissent, idealism and faith.
Yes, there is another America out there too-the America of large corporations, the Patriot Act, slavery and imperial adventures. The victims of that America don't have the luxury of enjoying a leisurely walk through Soho.
But as the Imam at the Happy Mosque reminded me, concepts can only be truly understood by experiencing their opposites. America's many faults can serve as reminders of its true promise.
Ahmed Nassef is editor-in-chief of MuslimWakeUp.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 by MuslimWakeUp.com. Reprinted with permission
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