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
That Friday afternoon I walked two miles from my apartment up
to Atlantic Avenue. Men in Muslim dress stood outside various
shops. I couldnt 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
I had an hour to kill, so I walked back through my neighborhood,
counting the possible reasons why I shouldnt go to the prayer
servicework, 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. Im sure theyd
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 werent 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. Its also a beautiful language to hear sung.
The sound of the imams 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
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 dowhat a profound effect
that would have on ones 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 aleikumpeace be with you.
Aleikum salaamand also with you. Thats
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 wasnt 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 couldnt
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, Its
okay. Its 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
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
I walked up the subway stairs and out into the late afternoon.
I couldnt let go of the image of her stepping into the fray
and calmly holding out her hand, saying, Its okay.