Photo by Duncan Sullivan

MUSLIMS IN THE VALLEY - PART 2: THE YOUNG COMMUNITY

By Noor Anwar

March 13, 2013

“Have you guys had stuff from the halal food cart near the mosque yet?” Ibrahim asks as he adjusts his black and white check-printed Arab fashion scarf. I’m sitting with three other Pakistani boys and an Afghani in the Oak Room, a dining common on the UMass campus with a halal food section.

I have never seen so many brown people in one place since arriving in the valley. “I eat there every day now after maghrib namaz (evening prayer). Those guys are awesome, and they’re doing so well MashAllah. I’ve made them a Facebook page.”

“Dude, I got diarrhea both times,” says Talha, as he takes a big bite of his halal hotdog.

“Dude, you’re from Karachi. Get over it,” quips Ibrahim, scratching his beard.

Ibrahim’s name is on a volunteer list at the mosque for giving lessons to learn the Quran. He is a Hifz-e-Quran, meaning he knows the entire book by heart. He teaches mostly kids who come to the Sunday school he sometimes helps out with; they also learn about things like cleanliness and good etiquette. They take the kids bowling and on little picnics, too. Around fifty kids show up, which can be a little overwhelming in such a small space.

Ibrahim and Saad are both part of the MSA (Muslim Student Association) at UMass Amherst - Saad is also a Hifz-e-Quran. Ibrahim is very involved in the mosque and its activities, and Saad occasionally goes for the jummah prayer. For him, it has more to do with the tradition of actually going with your friends to the mosque on Friday, like back home.

“This guy is always telling me not to go to your Hampshire parties,” laughs Saad, pointing at Ibrahim. “I don’t like discussing religion, it’s become too political.”

“Because as Muslims we don’t want to be tolerated, Saad. We want to be integrated,” Ahmed huffs back.

“But look at what’s happening in our own country, man. If there can be no integration on a national level in an Islamic state like Pakistan, how can we integrate in a place like the freakin’ Pioneer Valley? Religion to me is a really personal thing. I only pray when things are going well and I feel I need to be thankful. Usually people pray only when they need something, like on the night before an exam.” Saad takes a sip of his Vietnamese pho soup.

“I dropped a kayaking course at Hampshire because it was at the same time as jummah” says Talha, running his hand through his Mohawk. He met Ibrahim and Saad at a MSA dinner at the beginning of his first semester, where they told him about the mosque in Amherst. Talha introduced them to Nauman and Arslan, also Hampshire students. He mentions how he eagerly awaits the potluck at the end of jummah at Hampshire Mosque. He likes how the mosque has a real sense of community: there are only sixty people at jummah; back home there were three thousand. To remind him of the azaan (call to prayer), he has downloaded an app on his computer called ‘Guidance’.

Going to the mosque every Friday keeps Talha on track with making sure he is in contact with his faith, in case he hasn’t been praying regularly that week.  He appreciates that the khutba (sermon before prayer) is performed in English. Back home he can’t really understand it since it’s in Arabic. He also mentions that there is no fixed Imam (man leading the prayer) at the mosque, and so it gives a chance for different people to lead the jummah.

Photo by Duncan Sullivan

“Even UMass students! It’s pretty cool. I’ve never seen anything like that back home, where it’s always the same, really old guy. Over here, sometimes the Imam will forget parts when he’s reading the prayer and someone from the back will help him out.”

“They forget it back home sometimes too, ok,” Nauman retorts. Nauman has never gone to the Hampshire Mosque.

“Religion is fairytales taken too literally. If they were told now, an angel would appear holding a divine iPad instead.”

“I’ve never gone to the mosque here, either” says Arslan, the Afghani. “I passed by it during my first year, but it looked kinda sketchy. Honest opinion.” His comment makes me think of the man with the paint-splattered pants I passed as I walked up the stairs to the mosque.  He licked his lips and asked me “How ya doin', baby?”

“If you don’t go to the mosque three times in a row without a valid reason, you’re no longer a Muslim,” Talha says.

“Look, the point is we need play a part at least on our own campuses and try to cater to the college market. Make them see we’re not actually the Taliban. And that Pakistan is not in the Middle East and not all Muslims are Arab! People here are too busy discussing race and gender politics, they don’t want to understand anything else.” Ibrahim talks very fast.

“Just the other day, someone asked me if I spoke Islamic. What does that even mean?” laughs Arslan.

“Well last jummah there was this guy standing outside the mosque so I went outside to talk to him. He asked me if he could come in and pray, and I told him of course! And then I gave him a Quran to take home.”

“Are you sure he wasn’t FBI?” Everyone breaks into laughter.

****

“I’ll be right with you.” Naz, the designated ‘aunty’ of the Hampshire Mosque says to me before going on the side to say her isha (evening prayer). I have come to attend a halaka (discussion on Islam) at the mosque being led by its President of the Board. This week’s topic is an early surah revealed upon the Prophet, telling him of the responsibilities he will be made to face. Naz aunty’s cheerful voice matches the pink, lime green and turquoise embroidered shawl that is draped over her head. She came to the Valley in the late seventies to complete her master’s degree from Mount Holyoke College in developmental psychology, and stayed on to do her doctoral work at UMass. She met her Indian-Muslim husband, who passed away two years ago, in Northampton where he owned an oriental art and textiles gallery.

“I don’t wear a hijab outside the mosque, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the core of my existence” she says, adjusting her red framed glasses. “I don’t feel I need to flaunt my religion; I want everyone to feel comfortable when they talk to me. I see myself, and all of us from the community, as ambassadors of Islam. We need to show that a few misguided people don’t represent all Muslims. All religions have extremist factions and groups.”

Naz became very involved in the mosque after joining the Board a few years ago. Before, she only used to come to pray occasionally. Naz is part of the Interfaith Organization Network, through which she focuses on outreach for the non-Muslim community to dispel misunderstandings and create a sense of community between all the different faiths in the area. Naz always considered herself spiritual, but didn’t regularly practice. She explains how it is all about timing and when you’re seeking for something. If the time is right and you are ripe, you will finally be ready to absorb it.

To her disappointment, that time has not yet come for her twenty-three-year-old only son, who has made different choices for his life. She explains that the kind of community her son’s Sunday school mosque had was more rigid and less open to individual identities. The community never accepted her son and his views, and so it means nothing to him now. He has no affiliation with them or the mosque. She explains how there are different groups now in the area that have built their own communities, because they feel the mosque doesn’t support their views.

“Allah chooses the hearts He opens paths for, and I pray that someday He will open my son’s. So that he will have a good place in the next world.”

 

YouTube/Hampshire Mosque Amherst

A suited man with a long, pointy beard wearing a grey blazer, khaki trousers and a white prayer cap walks into the mosque. I recognize him from the poster I saw on the internet, and as the man Ibrahim described as being “really cool.”

“So, I hear that you’re on a wanted list.”

Dr. Ali Hazratjee smiles at me and responds, “Unfortunately, some of us just seem to get more attention.” He laughs. Dr. Ali is the President and one of the earliest members of the Hampshire Mosque when it was created around ten years ago. He is a good-looking man, with high arched eyebrows and a mesmerizing presence.  Originally from Gwalior, India, he is now a neurologist in the Springfield area.

“I’m not on any list” he says waving his hand. “Come on, you can’t be on a wanted list and be walking around, now can you?” he asks, sipping his tea. “The truth is always persecuted. It has been since the beginning of time.”

He explains how the drama began two years ago when the mosque put a bid on a piece of property on Harkness Road in Amherst, around the time of the Ground Zero controversy. He says that in the history of Amherst there had never been so many people present at a town meeting as there were on the one regarding the mosque. People even brought attorneys with them. But there were also a lot of people who came to support them, and the Interfaith Organization Network even wrote a letter on behalf of the mosque community.

He says there are generalizations made when calling the Valley a ‘liberal’ area, as there are always bigots everywhere, and it’s just that their population here is relatively small. The mosque received hateful and threatening voicemail messages, and people stopped coming to their fundraisers. There is even an anonymous website called the New England Town Crier which targets Islam, the mosque and its employees. They published a poster with Dr. Ali’s face and a “wanted” caption.

“My buddies at the FBI say this website is protected under the right to free speech in the first amendment of the constitution. They are trying to discredit and target us out of ignorance, which is why it is important that we reach out to the community through the discussions we have on Islam.”

“When the lion walks through the forest, the other animals bark. But does the lion stop?” he asks. We have nothing to fear, let the dogs bark.  Our history has been through so much worse, this is really nothing in comparison.  He smiles and shrugs. He says discrimination has become more localized ever since extreme ‘Islamophobes’ have been elected into the government. “Just yesterday someone put a dead pig inside a mosque in Texas, and I’m sure it wasn’t being gifted as a meal for the Muslims.”  He laughs sarcastically.

“If Prophet Muhammad, Jesus or Moses showed up in the US today, they would for sure be put on a terrorist list – with their robes and beards, and because they would speak the same truth. So if I am in fact on some list, then it means I am doing something right.”


This is the second installment of a three part series profiling the Muslim community in the Pioneer Valley. Read the first installment here. Switchboard will publish the final installment of this series on Wednesday, March 27. Noor Anwar is generously contributing selected segments from a larger work on Valley Muslims that she reported last year.