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     Volume 9 Issue 38| Spetember 24, 2010 |


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Writing The Wrong

I Heart New York

Sharbari Ahmed

Anti-Muslim graffiti.

I love New York; I always will, but there are days, of course, when I need reminding of why I love it. It also breaks my heart sometimes. It can be unyielding and lonely. The controversy and subsequent vitriol surrounding Park 51, the interfaith community centre to be built near Ground Zero, has taken me back to the days just after 9/11/01 when I felt like an interloper in my own country. When an NYC cab driver was stabbed recently after being asked if he was Muslim, I was also taken right back to that fearful place when I was a small girl and heard about the dot busters, a gang of white male youths, who were trolling towns in New Jersey, viciously attacking South Asians. I did not fear for myself, but for my mother, who always (and still does) wore saris everywhere we went. Never mind that I lived in Manhattan and then Westchester. New Jersey was too close for comfort for me. This was in the eighties when a sari wearing woman who always mistakenly ordered a whopper at a McDonalds, thus mortifying me to the point of dementia, was considered very odd indeed. It was then I realised that I may always carry this residual fear and nagging feeling of being an Other, never mind that I know what House of Burgesses are better than most Bible thumping “patriots” like Terry Jones, the Quran burning hooligan, who masquerades as a Christian.

I have to admit I have been lulled into a false sense of security ever since Obama came to office, but I was never fully convinced we, as a nation, had turned a corner when it came to racism. The thing is, of course, we never really will. I think we are in a holding pattern on that one. I feel that electing Obama was really just a natural response to the previous administration's fascist agendas and that our souls were weary and our spirits sick with hate and also worn out from being hated. Most people hold some type of prejudice in their heart, except maybe the Dalai Lama, and he is not one of us, let's be fair. He is what we aspire to be but most of us never quite get there.

Protesting bigotry.

The other day a poll said 33 per sent of New Yorkers are against the Park 51 community centre or want it moved to a different location. At first I was angry and hurt by this and wondered if these so-called “New Yorkers” were most likely from Sheboygen or Duluth and arrived here a mere ten years ago, hoping to make it “big”. After ten thousand fruitless auditions or working twelve hour days at Goldman Sachs and partying on weekends they consider themselves New Yorkers, but they are not native. I hoped that was the case. I KNOW native New Yorkers. People who grew up in the city or the outer boroughs and attended public school or school in the city. I was one of those people. I lived on Roosevelt Island and attended PS 17, and I feel that real New Yorkers pride themselves on being just ahead of the pack, the fray, the mediocrity that some construe middle America to be. There is a stoicism to the native New Yorker, a no nonsense attitude that revels in trench humour and might, at times, be more than content to stay on one's own side of the street. Neighbourhoods are a big deal in NYC. They are almost mini-kingdoms with their own rules and regulations and sometimes, English is not heard for blocks. Whenever I see the gritty black and white footage from a century ago of the lower East Side, with its teeming streets crowded with carts of fruit and shoes and ladies' hats I think that is what NYC was built on. The backs of immigrants, and each group has had to fight for their small, overcrowded, at times, unhygienic, piece of the metropolitan American dream. Everyone was hated and treated with cold suspicion at some point; Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Balkans, you name it. If I were to over simplify this Park 51 situation I would say, well then it's just our turn. The Muslims are the new kids on the block and need to pass initiation and prove themselves. How I wish that were true. Alas, there is a gaping hole a mere two blocks away, where two, tall metal and glass buildings once stood that makes this so much more complicated. But, also on the block that so many refer to as “hallowed ground” there is a strip club called New York Dolls. (The ladies who are employed by that establishment were among the first to point out the irony of objecting to Park 51 being developed there) Imam Feisal Abdul Rouf, the spearhead of this project, has pointed out how disingenuous it is to deem this area as sacred given the various dodgy businesses that are located there. And he is, of course, spot on.

Two Fridays ago I attended jumma prayer for the first time in my life. I was definitely like the new kid in school, a little nervous, not sure of what the rules were. I have been practicing Islam on my own time, in my own way. This seemed very official to me, going to jumma, and it scared me a little. My friend, who asked me to join her gave me a choice. We can go to the Masjidalfarah the hippy mosque or we can go to Park 51, she said. “We need protection, if we do go there.”

“Protection? Why.”

She sighed, “Well people are angry about Park 51, as you know.”

This did not worry me at all, though I know, intellectually, that anything can happen in the blink of an eye, that one's world can be altered forever in mere minutes, but I had to go. I had to make my point. My mother's entreaties and subsequent threats of eternal damnation, my sister's gentle reasoning, even my own sense of guilt, none of these things has gotten me to go to jumma in my whole adult life. But this was different. This was about what I stood for, what made me who I was. I have every right if I choose to, to practice my faith, where I want and how I want. And I wanted to do it there, at Park 51 on the last Friday of Ramadan down the street from a strip club and Ground Zero, and no one was going to tell me that I could not. That, folks, is the New York way.

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