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When No Mosque Is Near - NY Times, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    When No Mosque Is Near By DANIEL J. WAKIN http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/28/nyregion/28pray.html You drive a cab, wafted across the city on the whims of your
    Message 1 of 1 , May 29, 2004
      When No Mosque Is Near
      By DANIEL J. WAKIN

      http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/28/nyregion/28pray.html

      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
      said.

      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
      religion say.

      "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
      Middle East.

      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
      prayer.

      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
      day.

      "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
      everything."

      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
      taxi stand.

      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
      ensures customers.

      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
      language.

      "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."







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