Allah Akbar

by Jacob Slichter

The Friday after the September 11 attacks was declared to be a national day of prayer. I had not been to church in months and knew I had to go. But where?

I had moved to Brooklyn from Minneapolis a year ago but had not found a congregation. I immediately thought of the Muslim mosque on Atlantic Avenue. Several times I had walked down Atlantic and had heard the calls to prayer that summon the local merchants. Several times a day, they close up shop for fifteen minutes of prayer.

That Friday afternoon I walked two miles from my apartment up to Atlantic Avenue. Men in Muslim dress stood outside various shops. I couldn’t identify which building housed the worship space. I asked one man, “Where is the mosque?” He seemed afraid and spoke little English. He directed me to his boss inside the shop. I walked in and greeted the shop owner. Then I asked him where the mosque was and when the prayer services were. Would it be all right if I took part? I could see him observing in my face an embarrassing mix of enthusiasm and fear.

I hated that my fear was visible. I was dipping my toes into strange waters. I heard rumors that some of the men who had tried to blow up the World Trade Center several years earlier had been recruited in this very neighborhood. I insisted to myself that the men with whom I was speaking were upstanding citizens, but I really knew nothing about them. I was ashamed for conducting this internal debate.

For his part, the shop owner was calm and polite. He told me that the mosque was three doors down. The next prayer service would be sometime around 7:15 p.m. He said I would be welcome to join in. I thanked him and left. As I walked down the street, I imagined FBI surveillance watching the shops and wondering about my conversation with this man. Fear was closing in from different directions.

I had an hour to kill, so I walked back through my neighborhood, counting the possible reasons why I shouldn’t go to the prayer service—work, dinner plans, the suspicions I might arouse from the other worshippers, my ignorance of Muslim worship practices. I took out my cell phone and called various people who might know what would be expected of me. I finally got through to one friend in California who was a former Muslim. “I’m sure they’d love to have you. Just remember to take off your shoes.”

Thus assured by the shop owner and my friend, I decided to go through with my plan. I walked back through the neighborhood, past small gatherings of people on the sidewalk, flags, and memorials. I got back to Atlantic Avenue just in time to hear the call to prayer ringing through the streets over a loudspeaker. I walked into the mosque and shuffled down the entrance hallway with the other men. Some were dressed in traditional clothes: long robes and skull caps. Others were dressed much like me in jeans and street shoes. Some wore sweat pants, sandals, and T-shirts.

I came upon a man who seemed to know what was going on and identified myself as a non-Muslim visitor who wanted to pray with the other worshippers. “You want to pray with us?!” he asked, smiling. Fine. He invited me to take off my shoes and recruited one of the regulars to walk me upstairs to the worship area.

The building itself seemed like a former department store. The worship area, with its low ceilings, florescent lights, and carpet, felt more like an inner-city Pentecostal church. That made sense to me. Urban congregations searching for worship space must face the same choices, regardless of their faith.

Everyone in the room stood in lines oriented diagonally across the carpet, facing a closet in the corner. I quickly realized that we weren’t facing the closet but Mecca. Some men knelt on the floor in prayer. I stood, somewhat awkwardly, waiting for things to start. I was the only Caucasian, but the other men, who included Arabs, Asians, Africans, and African-Americans, represented a good amount of racial and national diversity.

As the imam stood ready to begin, the man who sent me upstairs stood next to me and said, “So, whatever we do, you do.” I was relieved to receive such simple instructions.

The imam began to sing in Arabic. We got down on our knees. Friends of mine who know Arabic talk about what a beautiful language it is to speak. It’s also a beautiful language to hear sung. The sound of the imam’s singing was the perfect inducement to a prayerful state of mind. The prayer melody twirled about, rising up and then pausing. Then the imam sang, “Allah Akbar.” We all bowed forward, quietly repeating those words, which translate as “God is great.”

Most of my associations with “Allah Akbar” are of angry crowds shouting these words at anti-US demonstrations. What a contrast this quiet utterance was. When the imam sang, “Allah” came out slowly, and “Akbar” was almost split into two words. It was if the imam kissed the final syllable “Allaaaaaaah Ak…bar.” The singing, the soft speaking, the prayer posture — it all produced in me an eye-opening serenity. I remembered that Muslims describe their religion as being focused on peace, and peace is what I felt. Experiencing this peace five times a day, as faithful Muslims do—what a profound effect that would have on one’s life.

The singing continued. I followed the different prayer postures, sometimes miscuing and bumping into other worshippers. By the third “Allah Akbar” I had caught on. Then we exchanged the peace. “A salaam aleikum”—peace be with you. “Aleikum salaam”—and also with you. That’s how Muslims greet each other on the street.

The service ended. We stood up. I thanked my host. He smiled and said, “You are welcome to pray with us whenever you want.” Then he asked me if I wanted to stay. I declined. In the background one of the worshippers got up to speak. I thought he was going to talk about the attacks. Instead, he went into a speech about how he was visiting from Atlanta, and in need of some money for travel. Eyes started to roll. Once again, I was reminded of how much all religious services have in common. How many times have I been in church when a stranger stood up to make an unauthorized appeal for cash? This man wasn’t getting very far. I collected my shoes and walked out.

On my way out of the mosque I noticed a black van parked nearby and wondered again if I was under some kind of surveillance. I soon forgot about that. I walked the two miles back to my apartment humming the melody for “Allah Akbar,” trying to caress the words as the imam had done. The words and melody stuck in my head for a week. I found myself singing those words under my breath and being reassured by them.

A few days later I saw an Arab woman coming out of the subway with her teenage daughter. The mother wore a headscarf, a practice that many other Arab women had set aside for fear of harassment. I smiled at her and said, “A salaam aleikum.” She smiled back in surprise and said, “Aleikum salaam.” As I went down the stairs to the subway, I turned around to see her looking at me still.

A few days after that, I was riding the subway home from Manhattan when a homeless man went into his pitch. No sooner had he shouted, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” than another person yelled from the other end of the car. Everyone around me laughed. The homeless man stopped and turned to watch.

A man seated at the far end of the car was shouting at two men standing near him. These men may have been Arab. I couldn’t tell. The man doing the yelling was white. I heard him shouting, “…blew up the World Trade Center.” Then he pointed at the men near him saying, “Arab motherfuckers!” He got up and started hitting them, and they hit back. Everyone screamed and ran away from him towards the end of the car where I was standing. Out of nowhere, a slight woman of fifty stepped into the whirlwind of punches and hair pulling. She held out her hand, saying, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” And, miraculously, the fight stopped.

The car was silent. The angry man sat down. The men he had attacked got off at the next stop. I stared at this woman. She kept a protective watch over the man as he sat there. I squeezed my way through the passengers to stand next to her, in case the man lost his mind again.

Standing next to him, I imagined that he was deeply ashamed for having lost control. He wore a wedding ring. He carried an attaché case. He was coming home on a Friday afternoon, and things had gotten too much for him. I looked at the woman and thought about how she had stepped into the fray with such calmness. Was she a Zen master, or was she too tired to approach the situation in any other way? She, the man, and I all got off at the same stop. I walked next to her on our way out of the station. I told her, “Everyone on that train thanks you for what you did.”

She was modest. “People are very upset these days.” She spoke with an accent. I wondered if she herself might have been Arab-American.

I walked up the subway stairs and out into the late afternoon. I couldn’t let go of the image of her stepping into the fray and calmly holding out her hand, saying, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Jacob Slichter is a musician living in New York.

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