Park51: Why Here?

Open on a scene of fist-pumping, screaming book-burners. Cut to a scene of screaming, sign-waving anti-Muslim protestors reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a community board meeting or a pastor burning a Quran a day.

As someone who’s been involved with the Park51 project from the beginning, I feel like I’m watching the same movie. (Deepak Chopra agreed in the Huff Post)

Some years ago, I interviewed Salman Rushdie for a magazine, just after the fatwah, before the hiding. When I read the onslaught of media about Park51, it’s down to the same thing Salman Rushdie told me, “No one’s actually read the book.”

Even my own mother said, “What?! It’s not a mosque? It’s not on ground zero? Why isn’t anyone telling us this?”

Let me explain. I live in lower Manhattan, about 12 blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Contrary to popular opinion, we are desperate for prayer space in the area. In our neighborhood, there is an increasingly large population of Muslims. Many of them work in the Financial district, but also on Canal street and in other local businesses.

Because the Muslim holy day is Friday, when most of them are at work in our area, the tiny storefront mosque where I have prayed for 20 years, Masjid Al-Farah, spills over with people. They are lined up outside, crowding the sidewalk like an open call for a multicultural American Idol.

According to fire codes, my storefront mosque can only hold about 75 people. Thus, on Fridays, we had to schedule four or five prayer consecutive services in order to accommodate people. People who have to rush back to work have to pray on the sidewalk on pieces of cardboard. Mira Schor’s My Whole Street is a Mosque explains how our whole neighborhood becomes instantly “hallowed ground.”

Opposition suggests that there are other prayer areas in Manhattan, but they obviously have never tried to get from the lower Westside to the Upper Eastside, or even the East Village, and back by lunch time. (You Muslims in the suburbs, especially the Canadian ones, clearly have NO idea.)

Some members of our congregation were lucky enough to work in real estate. So Sharif and Sammy El-Gamal along with their partner, Nour Mousa, put together a plan to buy a nearby building to house the overflow. Obviously, real estate in Tribeca and the Financial District is expensive and in short supply.  So they bought an affordable but broken-down building that’s sat empty for years, on a more or less deserted street. It was close, cheap and fulfilled our needs. It wasn’t meant to be a symbol of anything.

In the fall of 2009, they started having regular Friday prayers and by the late fall, hundreds of people were coming. Because we lived in the neighborhood, it was a necessary service. It was one without symbolism – except when, from time to time during the khutbah (sermon), we reflected on how lucky we were to be living in America.  Imam Feisal’s new-agey-self-searching sermons were, down to a word, gender neutral, spiritual and reassuringly apolitical. Wayne Dyer would find a kindred spirit. But every speaker never failed to remind us to be grateful for being American Muslims and to remember that we lived in a pluralistic society.

Now that the prayer room was operative, we all had a look at the enormous empty building and realized it was much bigger than we needed. At that point, we could have made high-priced condos. But, being Muslims, we all felt the right thing was to give something back to the neighborhood. Especially, a neighborhood that had been deeply hurt by criminals calling themselves Muslims.

We wanted to SHARE our space – our private property – with everyone.

We started brainstorming. One person dreamed of a gallery. Another, a playspace for kids. We envisioned cooking classes, performance spaces, classes for teenagers, a basketball court, a swimming pool (MY personal favorite), a wellness center. I wanted a Muslim prayer area that treated women equally, that was open to people of all sexual orientations, that was open to dialogue amongst Muslims of all beliefs, sects and practices – as well as other religions and atheists. We all wanted sustainable building materials and eco-friendly construction – maybe solar panels on the roof?

We got really excited about offering this gift to our community. We imagined the first-ever Muslim Y, with access for everyone. It would be something that we, as American Muslims, as New Yorkers, could really be proud of showing to our grandchildren.

Thus we made our first mistake. We introduced the idea at the community board meeting. All of a sudden, what we saw as a gift, an effort to enrich and heal, was taken (by some) as an assault on the people who had suffered on September 11.

Experience is not a qualifier in itself, but on September 11, 2001, I put my 6 and 4 year olds on the school bus. Then I watched the planes hit and wondered if I would ever see my daughters again. I sat on the steps on my building and comforted a sobbing neighbor whose husband and brother-in-law worked at Cantor on the top floor of the towers.

I can’t deny the anguish and suffering of people who lost loved ones on September 11.  I went to funerals for friends and neighbors and sobbed so hard I couldn’t see.

For a year following, and on almost every anniversary, I remember that panic, that sense of being violated by the event itself. Like so many of us in the area, my kids got asthma and I got cancer. I live the trauma myself.

Still, slowly but surely, life went back to normal. The burning cooled. The air cleared. The restaurants and shops hobbled open. People who were traumatized moved away. New people moved in (mostly financial industry types). There were babies and strollers and a Wholefoods. The playground got bigger. The school was packed.

And, as everyone knows, the best antidote to suffering and trauma, is the joy of life and moving forwards. For those of us who lived around the World Trade Center site, it became a nuisance as its construction continually halted traffic, blocked roads and made our cell phones go out. We still shopped at Century 21, had coffee in the park, walked over the windy pedestrian bridge to get to the movie theater on the other side.

The only people who still called it Ground Zero were tourists who came to look and buy postcards or baseball hats or snowglobes of the burning buildings that we tried to extinguish with human chains holding buckets of water.

They take pictures of each other in front of the fence.

All of a sudden, the argument isn’t about reviving a deserted street in our neighborhood. It isn’t about all the jobs and services we will bring to the place where we live. It’s about a symbol.

The same symbol you can buy on t-shirts and postcards and posters
Is this a place where New Yorkers live? Or is it a symbol for all of America?

And if it’s a symbol – where does the No-Muslim-Zone end? No-Muslims three blocks’ away? No-Muslims four or five? Can they pray on cardboard on the sidewalk or is that an affront as well? What about Muslims living and working in the area? Should they be denied services because their religion was hijacked? Where does our presence stop causing offense? (A taxi driver will tell you, all the way up to 23rd Street, at least).

Should I and my Muslim neighbors leave lower Manhattan in deference to the hurt feelings of all Americans?

But isn’t the answer to the hole that pain creates, the pleasure of life and love? Isn’t the most effective way to heal through forgiveness and faith? That’s what they tried to do with the Catholic Center for Prayer and Understanding near Auschwitz.

So let me explain again. It is not a mosque. It is a nonsectarian community center and Muslim prayer space. There will be an interfaith meditation room and memorial to the people we lost in 9/11. It is not at ground zero. It is two very long dark blocks away.

Park51 is our gift to ALL New Yorkers. Especially those of us who live downtown and need every service it offers.

Let’s not burn books. Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s read for the message of understanding all books bring.

ameena meer is a creative director and writer who has lived and worked in lower manhattan since 1989. she’s named and concepted products for calvin klein, the gap, avon and estee lauder. collaborating with mustafa farhad, their tribeca-based company, take-out media/atelier created the branding and positioning for park51. she continues to work on park51’s advertising, communications and social media while trying to make downtown a better place for all of us who live and work here. You may reach her at ameena.meer@park51.org.

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