When No Mosque Is Near - NY Times, USA
- When No Mosque Is Near
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
You drive a cab, wafted across the city on the whims
of your fares. But you are Muslim, and must pray five
times a day - which involves ablutions, facing east
and a series of prostrations in submission to God.
What to do?
With the age-old ingenuity of immigrants adapting to a
new world, Muslim cabbies in New York - by one
estimate, half of the city's 40,000 taxi drivers -
have devised a jury-rigged system.
The drivers congregate in South Asian restaurants that
provide prayer space in basements or back rooms. They
have an imprint of the city's mosques in their brains,
at the ready wherever a fare may take them as prayer
time closes in. Using a small carpet kept in the
trunk, they pray in the back seat, or even on the side
of the road.
"Wherever we be, in the city, there is a place to
pray," said Amar Abdemula, 42, a Sudanese cabdriver
who lives in Flatbush.
Keeping the faith, however, is not always easy for
these men. (And that's pretty much who they are, given
the profession.) The biggest obstacles are parking,
timing and cleanliness. Muslims are required to wash
before praying, and the place itself must be clean.
The ritual generally lasts 10 to 45 minutes, depending
on the circumstances.
Some drivers say the threat of bias attacks after
Sept. 11 has made them too fearful to prostrate
themselves in the streets, but not Mr. Abdemula. "I
pray any place, because protection is from God," he
Mr. Abdemula spoke at La Guardia Airport. He was one
of a steady stream of South Asian, Arab and African
men who made their way to a nook beneath an overpass
near the Delta Airlines terminal that has become an
informal prayer space.
A large cheap rug lay over a bed of ornamental mulch.
The men first washed in a restroom at the arrivals
terminal. They then unrolled tiny carpets over the
rug, took off their shoes and faced east toward Mecca
to pray as planes roared overhead and traffic whooshed
by. A tuft of pine trees hid them from the road. In
front of their bending bodies was a chain link fence
and then a sea of yellow cabs waiting their turn to
approach the taxi stand. The cabbies prayed quickly so
they could reach their taxis before it was their time
to move ahead in line.
The cabbie prayer strategies are a prime example of
how outsiders trace new religious pathways in a city
burbling with the world's faiths, sociologists of
"You're also bringing religion into the daily warp and
woof of American religious life in a new way," said
Courtney Bender, an assistant professor of religion at
Columbia University who has studied the drivers. "It
makes American daily life more religious."
She estimates that roughly half of the city's
cabdrivers are Muslim, based on the large number of
mainly Muslim Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, as well as
many Muslim Indians and drivers from Africa and the
Generally, prayers take place shortly before dawn, at
midday, in the late afternoon, in the evening and
before bed. Cabbies working 12-hour shifts are bound
to span several of the prayer times.
Sometimes it boils down to a choice between prayers or
fares. Mr. Abdemula said if he is near a mosque where
parking is difficult, he will put on his off-duty sign
and forsake business well before the hour of midday
Ibrahim Khan, 24, who arrived in the United States
from Pakistan three years ago, lucked into a parking
place one Friday near New York's main mosque, the
Islamic Cultural Center of New York at 96th Street and
Third Avenue. A woman heading for La Guardia had
hailed him at 65th Street and First Avenue, but he
turned her down. "I said I can't go because it was my
prayer time," he said. "She said, 'O.K., I'm sorry.' I
said it's O.K." The loss of the $35 was a big chunk
out of the $150 to $200 Mr. Khan said he earns in a
"If God wants to give you passengers or money, he'll
give you," he said. "If you do for God, you have to
believe that God is going to do for you. He's watching
Many cabdrivers go to the 96th Street mosque for
midday prayers on Friday, Islam's holy day, when it is
important to pray in a group. Until recently, several
cabdrivers and mosque officials said, the police would
turn a blind eye to double-parked taxis. But that has
changed, and the tickets are flowing, they said. The
mosque provides forms stating that drivers were
present for prayer services, for use in traffic court.
Police officials say that there have been more
complaints from neighbors because of an increase in
attendance on Fridays but that they have not been
giving out any more tickets.
Along with city's smaller neighborhood mosques,
restaurants are a major prayer destination. Several
are on or near Lexington Avenue in the 20's, a patch
of South Asian businesses with a long yellow oasis - a
The Shipa Kasturi Pavilion on Lexington and 26th
Street is a bare, fluorescent-lit Bangladeshi
restaurant with dirty linoleum and garish pictures of
horses and a city skyline on the wall.
Drivers go to the counter, get a key, unlock a side
door and descend a narrow wooden staircase. A larger
freezer, sacks of onions and rice, boxes of potatoes
and gas meters crowd the already claustrophobic space.
A clean, green-carpeted empty room is reached through
a door, where the drivers pray.
One, Mohammad Manzur Alam, said he had appealed to the
owner's sense of duty as a Muslim and talked him into
providing the room, soap and a basin to wash in.
Drivers chipped in for the renovation of the room and
the carpet. But the street runs two ways: many
restaurants benefit by providing the space because it
On this day in May, Mr. Alam had gathered a few of his
fellow Bangladeshi drivers through cellphone calls. It
is better to pray together, he said. After ablutions
and prostrations, they ate upstairs in the restaurant,
for a full cultural experience of faith, food and
"We can do two necessary things together: lunch and
prayer," Mr. Alam said.
Mr. Alam said he was also campaigning for a shed at
Kennedy International Airport, where he said drivers
pray in the middle of a lot, but had yet to receive
support from the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Commission officials said they knew of no such request
and referred the matter to the Port Authority because
it was the agency's jurisdiction. The Port Authority
said it had not received a formal request but would
consider the idea.
Other restaurants in Manhattan with prayer space
include Sheezan, on Church Street in TriBeCa, and the
Dhaka Restaurant on 31st Street between Madison and
Fifth Avenues. When a visitor asked about prayers at
Dhaka, the counterman led the way to a closet and
produced a carpet for worshipers to use in the back of
the restaurant. He said many drivers come in the
evening after their shift. At Niamat Kada, on
Lexington Avenue and 28th Street, there was only space
for two or three worshipers in the basement.
The South Asian restaurant "becomes sort of like a
community center, like so many things in New York
does," said Tony Carnes, a sociologist of religion and
co-editor of the just-released "Asian American
Religions: The Making and Remaking of Borders and
Boundaries" (New York University Press), which
includes an article on the drivers written by
Professor Bender and a student.
"What's unique about it is creating ritual purity in a
place that may be an impure place," Mr. Carnes said,
referring to a restaurant's association with heavy
traffic, trash and restrooms. "They see it as a place
of order and of invitation and of relaxation."
Chat instantly with your online friends? Get the
FREE Yahoo! Messenger http://uk.messenger.yahoo.com/