30 mosques in 30 days
By Shenaz Kermali
What do a Las Vegas casino manager, a Cambodian refugee, a Hurricane Katrina hero and a champion Georgian girls basketball team all have in common?
They are all American - and they are all Muslim.
This Ramadan, two New Yorkers have been on a mission: To show Americans and the world the different faces of the US heartland.
Stand-up comedian Aman Ali and filmmaker Bassam Tariq drove across the US to visit 30 mosques in 30 states over the 30 days of the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and spiritual purification for Muslims. It is a journey that covered 12,000 miles. And they have been blogging throughout.
Tens of thousands of people from more than 20 countries, including Luxembourg, Panama and Vietnam, have been following the 30 mosques blog.
"I'm not a Muslim. I'm a Desert Shield/Storm veteran. As a former Texas prison guard, I usually got annoyed with Ramadan. I viewed most of the inmates that claimed to be Muslim as just trying to beat the system. I've made the derogatory jokes and remarks about Muslims .... All this while claiming to be a Christian. I haven't been very Christ like. You've given me lots to think about"
A comment posted on the 30 mosques blog
The road trip comes against the backdrop of a rise in hate crimes against American Muslims and a heated debate over the appropriateness of building an Islamic centre two blocks away from 'Ground Zero' that has gripped the country.
But Aman, 25, and Bassam, 23, say their decision to go on the trip had nothing to do with the recent storm over the Islamic centre.
The two also blogged on a road trip they took last Ramadan, when they visited 30 mosques around New York City. It attracted fans across the US and the world, so they decided to up the scale a year later.
"With the mosque near Ground Zero, we believe people on both sides have been exploited - but it's not the only issue that defines Muslims," says Aman.
"Post 9/11 has seen all these narratives about racial profiling and airport security - these issues do concern a lot of American Muslims, but they aren't the only ones."
So what are the struggles being experienced by Muslims in the US?
Bassam responds: "A father who is trying to provide for his children, or take his kids to soccer practice. These are the common issues Americans [and their Muslim neighbours] face."
"It's been so frustrating. It's time for Muslims to start telling their own stories."
The plurality of Muslim communities in the US is also something the bloggers hope will educate everyone.
"I hope if there's one thing that non-Muslims watching this project will draw from is that a lot of what we're covering is just part of their community," says Aman.
"I hope they accept that. It's not just some fringe group but it's a part of the American fabric."
And a diverse fabric it is. During their travels, the two broke their fast with some former victims of the Khmer Rouge, met a Pakistani-Mormon couple and were given a tour by a teacher from Oklahoma who often wears cowboy boots underneath her flowing abaya.
But it was their stop at a Las Vegas mosque minutes away from The Strip, the city's infamous road of casinos and hotels, that has generated the most feedback from readers.
Gambling is prohibited in Islam, but it is somewhat common for Muslims living in Las Vegas to work in casinos, Aman explains. Many have migrated to the US from Bosnia, Afghanistan, Morocco, the Philippines and Somalia.
Amanullah is one such person. A board member of the Jamia Masjid, the Afghan father also works full-time as a casino manager at the MGM Grand Casino in downtown Las Vegas.
Amanullah said he took the casino job in the 1980s because he desperately needed the income to support his family and to send money home to relatives in Afghanistan.
"I had no money," he told Aman and Bassam. "I used to walk my daughter to school and I would have no money to even buy her milk. I was only making enough to cover rent."
"In all my years I've never gambled or sipped a drop of alcohol," he said. "I've never enjoyed seeing any of this around me and as I get older it becomes more and more difficult to stand this. The only thing that gives me peace is my family and the masjid."
Aman says meeting Amanullah made him recall his own father's struggle to provide for his family. "There's something many people don't understand about the need for a man to provide for his family on his own, and what lengths he's willing to go to in order to make that happen," he writes in the 30 mosques blog.
A few days and some 200 miles later, Aman and Bassam stopped at Masjid Rehma in the state of Louisiana, where they met Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the unassuming Syrian-American who became a national hero after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, killing 1,800 people.
Zeitoun stayed back and paddled from house to house in a canoe, offering help to his neighbours. He was later arrested as a suspected terrorist and detained for almost a month.
A book relating his experience has now been published and an animated film adaptation is due to be released next year.
"I was really moved by his character when we met him," Bassam recalls. "We went to his house and met his wife. On the table there was a storyboard of the film they're making - it looked like a cross between Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir, it was amazing."
Stopped by police
"I was finding myself getting angrier and angrier about the constant abuse being heaped on America about our so-called intolerance to Islam. I mean, really, the religion of ... Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, al-Qaeda lecturing us on tolerance? But then I read your blog. It brought my focus back to what I already knew. That the hateful groups mentioned above are about as relevant to the average American Muslim as the KKK, the Inquisition, the Westboro Baptist Church, and paedophile priests are to the average American Christian"
A comment posted on the 30 mosques blog
The two bloggers were not embraced warmly everywhere. In a last-minute change of plans, they decided to visit a mosque in Mobile, Alabama, with two CNN journalists tagging along to cover the story.
Unlike the other mosques they had stopped at, this visit was not pre-arranged and soon after arriving, they were asked to leave. No reason was given.
And on the long night journey from Mississippi to New Orleans, the two were stopped and questioned by a Mississippi police officer.
Bassam still sounds stunned when he describes the incident. He said they had always tried to avoid driving at night, partly for fear of being racially profiled but it could not be avoided that night.
They were tailed by the police for 15 minutes before being pulled over, he says. "We thought he was going to give us a speeding ticket."
But the officer asked to see a driver's license and then asked them: "So what do you think about that ground zero mosque?"
Bassam says: "I was like 'what?' It was completely out of nowhere ... but I knew however I answered this question was going to decide how we were going to spend the night.
"So I thought about all the right-wing talking points I'd read [from people opposed to the mosque] and said: 'Well ... for them to build it by Ground Zero is very insensitive. I mean come on, it's been less than 10 years and we're still healing from the attack. Isn't it just a slap in the face?'"
"Yeah!" Bassam said the officer exclaimed. "I mean, that's just wrong for them to build it there."
He smiled and let them go.
Defining the US
While the incident left both men stunned, they said it has not shaken their core feeling that Americans have been generally accepting.
"America has its dark ends, but I still feel like it's the most pluralistic, accepting society in the world. I was born in Pakistan but I love it here," he says.
Aman, who was born in Ohio, feels the same way. "There's no doubt that America and Islam are on troubled ground at the moment. It's not the same place my parents came to."
"But part of me still feels it's there," he adds. "So going on this road trip - it's one of those journeys to see how broad of a definition of America are people willing to accept?"
30 mosques in 30 days
Stand-up comedian Aman Ali and filmmaker Bassam Tariq drove across the US to visit 30 mosques in 30 states over the 30 days of Ramadan [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Iowa: Aziza Igram, a first generation Muslim American, holds a picture of the Mother Mosque - established in 1934, it is the longest standing mosque in North America [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Iowa: Aziza(***)s husband, Abdullah, a Syrian American, served in the military during World War II. But when getting his dog tag made, he found that there was no option for Muslim as a religious affiliation. He later wrote to President Eisenhower persuading him to add an M for Muslim option on military dog tags [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Wisconsin, Milwaukee: Both Sheikh Kaleem and his wife are blind. The sheikh is an active imam in several mosques in the area and has taught kung fu for over 30 years [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Minnesota: The mosque owned by Minneapolis(***) large Somali community has an unusual neighbour, Palmer(***)s Bar. Abdul Qadir, the executive director of the community, describes the relationship between the neighbours: "Sometimes the music gets a little loud, but we just tell them to kindly put the music down for us to pray. And they are very respectful." [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;North Dakota: Ross - a town with a population of 48 people according to the last census - was home to the first mosque ever built in the US. It was built by Syrian American farmers in 1929 but demolished in the 1970s. In 2005 a new mosque was built on the site of the original [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;North Dakota: Lila and her son Greg stand by the mosque. Lila(***)s mother, Sarah Allie (Omar) Shupe was instrumental in getting the new mosque built in 2005. Lila prefers not to talk about why the original mosque was demolished [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Idaho: During the war in the 1990s, the US government helped to bring thousands of Bosnians to the US. They were settled in less populated and more affordable parts of the country like Boise, Idaho. It took 12 years for the Bosnian community there to come together and build a mosque but on July 4, 2010 the Islamic Commmunity of Bosniaks in Boise officially opened its doors [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Las Vegas: Amanullah works at a casino and is on the board of the Jamia Masjid, a mosque just minutes away from the city(***)s infamous road of casinos and hotels. Gambling is prohibited in Islam but it is quite common for Muslims to work in casinos in Las Vegas. "Nobody enjoys this work," Amanullah says. "But we do it because we want a better life for our kids." [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;California: Under the Khmer Rouge, religion was not allowed. So Cambodian Muslims would pray in secret. When Cambodian refugees started to arrive in the US they initially ended up in different cities but a community gradually began to be built in Santa Ana. [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;New Mexico: Dar al Islam is mosque made from adobe mud that sits over a mile up in the mountains. When it was built in the early 1980s around 30 to 40 families frequented it daily. Now it is only used for special events like conferences and camps, although the locals seem to agree on wishing it was used more often [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Denver: Sheikh Abu Omar al-Mubarac is a pioneer of the Muslim community in Denver. He grew up in Iraq and the escaped the country in the 1960s when the Baath party wanted him dead. The 80-year-old has escaped drowning, political assassinations and even a fatal health diagnosis [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Georgia: By the side of a road in southern Georgia there is Confederate souvenir shop. Robert, the owner, says he is frustrated with how Confederate flags get a bad rap and explains that he condemns all the racist connotations people associate with the flag. He says everyone is welcome in his shop [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Georgia: It is said that 100 per cent of the seniors from the Mohammed Schools in Atlanta, Georgia go to college after graduation. The girls basketball team, the Lady Caliphs, made it to the state finals two years ago [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Washington DC: Masjid Muhammad was founded by the late Elijah Muhammad and carried on by his son the late Warith Deen Muhammad. Imam Warith Deen helped transition a large portion of Nation of Islam toward mainstream Sunni Islam. A lot of the mosques around the northeast used to be Nation of Islam temples [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Pennsylvania: The mazhar or buriel site of Sufi saint Bawa Muhaiyadeen can be found in East Fallowfield farm. Bawa(***)s short time in Pennsylvania was well documented and photographed by members of the Bawa Muhaiyadeen Fellowship [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Chuck says the mazhar is the first in the US. It was built in 1986 and unlike most mazhars in South Asia, Bawa(***)s is a quiet place where no singing, music or speaking is allowed [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Members of the fellowship line up for the magreb prayer [Credit: Bassam Tariq];*;Chicago: There are approximately 10,000 Shia Muslims living in the Chicago area [Credit: Bassam Tariq]
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