A Visit to New York's Islamic Culural Center
By Joshua Goldberg

14 September 2001

So... on my lunch hour, I visited the Islamic Cultural Center. I knew it was a mosque, and I was completely and utterly disgusted with [the hateful comments by] Falwell/Robertson, and I was frightened by the reports of beatings of Arabs and lootings of Arab businesses.

So I went with the intention of praying.

I mentioned my intentions to the guy at the gate, and he told me that I was not allowed to pray, but I could look around. "I wouldn't go pray in a synagogue; you shouldn't pray here." I thought this was a little nuts, but I just nodded my head and went in.

Keep in mind how I look: open-toe sandals, and long, blue-green hair.

I walked in and was directed to the office of the Imam, who is as far as I can tell the chief Imam of New York (?). In his waiting room, after I was asked why I was there, and told them, people were deeply surprised. While a couple of assistants went to tell the Imam that I was there, I spent some time being talked to by a few nice old "church ladies."

Something that is both surprising and unsurprising: church ladies are church ladies are church ladies. You know the type; they're in synagogues as well. Retired, time on their hands, a little wacky, well-meaning, good at cobbler, or kugel, or whatever.

Wacky church lady #1 told me about how people are people wherever they are. We are all one, etc, etc. She told me that israel had no right to exist in the middle east; they had taken land from people who had been there for thousands of years. I bit my tongue and decided that I was not going to talk about [my brother] Jon [who lives in Israel] at all in this visit.[*]

I decided that listening to wacky church lady #1 was not unlike listening to my great aunt Elisabeth when she starts honking off about how wonderful Harvard is. People have a right to their opinions, and they're just opinions. I listen and nod and do kind of Clintonesque pouts to make sure she knows I'm listening.

I am given a copy of the Imam's latest speech by wcl#2; she tells me that there were two Rabbis in attendance when it was given. I say thank you. I have not yet had time to read the speech.

Anyway, eventually the Imam comes out of his office. "Asalaam aleikem" he says to me. "Aleikem salaam" I say, "I apologize for my inappropriate dress." He nods and smiles, takes my arm and leads me into his office. He is shorter than I am, horn rims, light beard. his office is lit with fluorescent lights, blank, underpainted walls, books in Arabic everywhere. Also books in hebrew, interestingly enough, and a few books about Jewish culture. Nothing is immediately visible on Christianity. He has two assistants there as well; an African-American man and a very overweight Caucasian woman, both in traditional Islamic dress. Both of them introduce themselves to me. She has a strong southern accent; his is pure Brooklyn.

I am not sure what I am doing there. I'm a little freaked out. The male assistant asks me how i'm doing. "I'm a little freaked out," I tell him. We laugh. It's a casual start to the meeting. Meeting?! This feels like a political thing! How did I end up here, of all people?

The Imam tells me that he is very, very glad to see me. No other New York Jews have wandered into the cultural center. He has invited Rabbis, who have come, but there has been little outreach otherwise by the Jewish community. I tell him I think that's outrageous. He agrees.

We talk about the beatings and lootings that have been occurring. We agree that they are disgusting. I ask him what he would do if he was president of the United States. He looks at me, and tells me that he would not target countries -- he would continue the investigation to locate the people responsible for the terrorism, as opposed to causing the death of more civilians and innocents. This comes out in a long, exhausted, frustrated but friendly tirade. My impression is of a good man under horrific stress. He tells me there have been several bomb threats called in since Wednesday.

I had walked in with my guard up somewhat, after listening to the wacky chuch lady's theories on the legitimacy of Israel. I listen to the Imam, and what he is telling me makes sense. I nod my head and listen and begin to reconsider my previous, bloodthirsty position. Now i'm just sad. Sad that such hatred exists in the world, and sad that I actually found myself wishing for events that would end the lives of many people, just as the collapse of the towers ended the lives of people here.

We talk some more, and the conversation comes to a natural end. I thank the Imam for his time. He thanks me again, and again, for coming to talk to him. He tells me again how important it is that I did what I did, and how much he wishes there were more like me. He says, "asalaam aleikem, brother." I wish him the same.

On my way out, wacky church ladies number 3 and 4 ask me about my hair. "Did you do it with kool-aid?" How strange is it that it's only African-Americans who give me comments on my appearance these days -- all good. Whites look the other way.

The guy at the gate looks me up and down as I exit the center. "Did you get what you want?" I say yes, and tell him "Asalaam aleikem, my brother," and he responds in kind, grinning from ear to ear. We tell each other to be safe, and I walk back to work.

Joshua Goldberg is a multi-media artist in New York City.

[*]This article was updated on 18 September. Anyone who saw
an earlier version may notice that this paragraph has been modified
slightly, removing what was determined to be unverified information
regarding television footage of Palestinians.

Copyright 2001, by Joshua Goldberg. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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