Awliya in America: Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Here is a short piece in honor of Brother Malcolm on the anniversary of his passing 50 years ago.

On a cool fall morning in 2013 Martin and I visited Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York. We walked between the unassuming headstones and stood humbly before the graves of Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz and Betty Shabazz.

2013-10-05 11.21.56

Here lies Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz

Ferncliff Cemetery is located in Hartsdale, Westchester County, New York. Malcolm X is interred in section Pinewood B, Grave 150. The map below outlines the approximate location of the grave.

Ferncliff Cemetery Map to Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz

Ferncliff Cemetery Map to the graves of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz; courtesy of Google Maps

Upon our visit we found comfort and hope in the words of Ossie Davis:

Eulogy delivered by Ossie Davis at the funeral of Malcolm X

Faith Temple Church Of God

February 27,1965

“Here – at this final hour, in this quiet place – Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes -extinguished now, and gone from us forever. For Harlem is where he worked and where he struggled and fought – his home of homes, where his heart was, and where his people are – and it is, therefore, most fitting that we meet once again – in Harlem – to share these last moments with him. For Harlem has ever been gracious to those who have loved her, have fought her, and have defended her honor even to the death.

It is not in the memory of man that this beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud community has found a braver, more gallant young champion than this Afro-American who lies before us – unconquered still. I say the word again, as he would want me to : Afro-American – Afro-American Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the power words have over minds of men. Malcolm had stopped being a ‘Negro’ years ago. It had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American and he wanted – so desperately – that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans too.

There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile. Many will say turn away – away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man – and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate – a fanatic, a racist – who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.

Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. Last year, from Africa, he wrote these words to a friend: ‘My journey’, he says, ‘is almost ended, and I have a much broader scope than when I started out, which I believe will add new life and dimension to our struggle for freedom and honor and dignity in the States. I am writing these things so that you will know for a fact the tremendous sympathy and support we have among the African States for our Human Rights struggle. The main thing is that we keep a United Front wherein our most valuable time and energy will not be wasted fighting each other.’ However we may have differed with him – or with each other about him and his value as a man – let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now.

Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man – but a seed – which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince! – who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”


Ossie Davis, “Eulogy Delivered by Ossie Davis at the Funeral of Malcolm X, Faith Temple Church of God, February 27, 1965” Malcolm X, last modified February 21, 2015,

New York’s First Mosque [1] Revisited

Revisiting the Brooklyn Mosque on Powers Street

Revisiting the Brooklyn Mosque on Powers Street

Early last year I happened to come across a passage from an unpublished memoir in the New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a former columnist for the magazine. Mitchell would wander New York, allowing the city to guide his steps. He was drawn to places of worship in particular.  Sometime during Ramadan in the 1960s he found himself at the Muslim Mosque Inc. on Powers Street in Brooklyn. Read the original post here.


This piqued our interest and so began the search for more information. The bookshelves exhaled and crowded our desks with articles, books and news clippings. We suspected this to be New York’s first mosque. Martin and I visited and reported on the Muslim Mosque Inc. in March of 2013. Upon visiting we unfortunately found the mosque closed. Eager for more we concluded our post asking readers for more information.

We were recently contacted by Alyssa H. a board member of the mosque. Alyssa and her husband Pete reached out to us after reading our post and invited Martin and I to revisit the mosque. This time we were greeted by warm smiles and an open door. Alyssa graciously showed us the space and shared her knowledge on the history of the mosque and her own memories growing up in the Muslim Mosque Inc. community. Our conversation with Alyssa will be published in a forthcoming post.

Powers Street Mosque 1937

The Powers Street mosque was originally constructed in 1885 and served as a Protestant church. It was later used as a public hall of the Democratic Club and was finally acquired and became a mosque in 1931. An article published in the Herald Tribune from 1937 details the early history of the mosque. A full transcript follows:

New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, September 5, 1937

Mahometans Refurbish Only Mosque in City for Holy Month of Ramadan Starting Nov. 5

Brooklyn Edifice Soon Will Hear Praises of Allah Again, as in Tartar Home

Weekly Service on Friday

Up to 200 Faithful Attend Usual Evening Prayer

By James G. Simonds

As repairs to the mosque at 108 Powers Street, Brooklyn, the only real mosque in New York near completion, the followers of the Prophet Mahomet are preparing to answer the call to prayers given by the Imam Hussain Rafikoff. The mosque does not have a minaret, as did the mosque of the little Tartar village of Iwje, near Vilna, in what was formerly Russia and is now Poland, from which the Imam came to the United States twenty-nine years ago.

Speaking of the services in the mosque, Imam Rafilowich said, “In the village I came from we used to have services five times a day. My uncle, who was Imam (prayer leader) of the village, would go up on the minaret and call the people of the village and they would all come to the mosque.”

One Service Held Weekly

In Brooklyn it is entirely different, the Imam said. The congregation consists of working people, who are unable to get away from their jobs to attend the prayer meetings. Services are held only once a week, on Friday evenings. Then the imam and his assistants enter the mosque, and give the call to prayers from the pulpit.

The mosque itself was originally built as a Protestant church. Later it became a Democratic club, and finally about six years ago it was purchased by a group of devout Mahometans.

The building has high iron steps leading to the front entrance on the second floor. It contains a large hall, with a pulpit opposite and to the east of the entrance, so that during the entire service the Mahometans face the direction of the Holy City of Mecca.

Many Races Represented

The group that answers the call to prayers on Friday evenings comes from all parts of the city, and represents many races belonging to the Mahometan religion. It includes Arabs, Tartars, Syrians, Egyptians, Turks, Afghans, East Indians, Albanians and Malayans, as well as several converted Christians.

Before coming to the mosque each of the Mahometans must wash himself thoroughly, and must do nothing which would impair what is known as his state of “legal purity” before the service. Entering the mosque, members of the congregation must leave their shoes outside the door.

The imam wears a flowing, dark-green robe with a high collar and wide sleeves, and a green fez trimmed with white to distinguish him from the congregation and his assistants. During the service he has one official helper, but certain members of the congregation help him lead some of the prayers.

Some Use Prayer Rugs

Each prayer service opens with the formula “Allah Akbar” (“Praise be to Allah”), which is repeated by the congregation. Then the imam recites the first chapter of the Koran, which is called the Fatiha. The Mahometans kneel facing him. Some of them have prayer rugs, but for the most part they kneel on a covering placed on the floor for that purpose.

There are two special services during the Mahometan year, one on the day ending the month of fasting, Ramadan, and the other on the tenth day of the month of Zu-l-Heggeh, which corresponds to the day on which those who are making the pilgrimage to the Holy City make their sacrifices in Mecca.

All services are conducted in Arabic, the language of the Koran, although the most numerous racial group attending the mosque is that of the Tartars, who come from what is present-day Poland.

These Tartars are descendants of the Tartar hordes of Tamerlane the Great. They entered Russia almost six centuries ago and became engaged in a war with the Lithuanians. After the war many of them settled on Lithuanian soil and have remained there since, although the country has changed masters many times.

At the usual evening prayer service about 100 to 200 Mahometans are present, but on special occasions many more attend. The devout Mahometans keep their heads covered during the entire service. It does not matter what kind of headdress they wear, so all types may be seen during the service.

They kneel facing the pulpit while praying, and then listen to the sermon of the Imam. On either side of the pulpit hang the American flag and the green banner of the Prophet. On one wall of the mosque is a silk drape with a quotation from the Koran.

During the month of fast, Ramadan, this year from November 5 to December 5, there will be prayers several times every week.

The fast is one of utmost importance to the Mahometans, for it is one of the five pillars, or absolute requirements, of the Islamic faith. It is supposedly during this month that the Koran was revealed.

The conclusion of the fast is marked by a celebration known as “Eed es-Sagheer” (the minor festival), which is supposed to be the most joyful occasion of the Mahometan year.

On the other of the two chief festivals of the Mahometan year, on the tenth day of the month of Zu-l-Heggeh, the last in the Mahometan calendar, there is a general celebration among the Mahometan population of New York. At the time of this celebration, known as “Eed-el-Kurban,” (the great festival), there are other services besides the one in the mosque. Nearly 1,000 other Mahometans usually gather, sometimes in the Royal Palace Hall, 18 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn.

The mosque is much the same today. The lower level serves as a multipurpose gathering space. The two staircases at the east end of the building lead up to the main prayer area. The exterior iron staircase is no longer used. The walls on both levels are adorned with decades of history, from donor plaques, to banners, and original artwork by the mosque attendees. Additional images can be found in the gallery.

Mitchell, Joseph. 2013. “Street Life: Becoming part of the city.” The New Yorker, February 11 & 18. p. 66.

Simonds, James G. 1937. “Mahometans Refurbish Only Mosque in City for Holy Month of Ramadan Starting Nov. 5.” The New York Herald Tribune, September 5.


New York’s First Mosque?

Muslim Mosque Inc. Brooklyn, NY

Muslim Mosque Inc. in Brooklyn, NYC

I recently stumbled upon a passage from an unpublished memoir in The New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a former writer for the magazine. Mitchell’s imagery and encounters in the city were fascinating, especially his musings on a Mosque in Brooklyn in the 1960s.

The following quote prefaces the article.

Joseph Mitchell was on the staff of this magazine from 1938 until his death, in 1996. Born in 1908 into a prosperous family of North Carolina cotton and tobacco growers, he came to New York City at the age of twenty-one, to pursue a career as a writer. Arriving jut as the Depression set in, he heeded the advice of one of his first editors, at the Herald Tribune: walk the city; get to know every side street and quirk and character. He did this, obsessively, for the rest of his life. Mitchell profiled the Mohawk steelworkers who erected many of Manhattan’s skyscrapers; and McSorley’s old Ale House, the city’s most venerable tavern; and George Hunter, the caretaker of a ramshackle African-American cemetery on Staten Island; and Lady Olga, the bearded lady in countless circus sideshows. What follows here is in the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies but, with other writings after 1964, never completed. 

Mitchell writes of being drawn towards places of worship, “specifically to old churches that have undergone a metamorphosis…” He goes on to write about two such buildings in which he would often find himself.

The other building is about a dozen blocks away, on Powers Street. It is much plainer. It is a steep-roofed, clapboard-sided, two-story building with tall wooden doors and tall, colored-glass windows. Except for one appendage, it closely resembles a New England town hall. It was built in 1885, and for many years it was in fact a public hall. Its first story was the clubhouse of the Democratic club of the Thirteenth Assembly District and its second story was a hall that was rented out for dances, parties, and wedding receptions, and for lodge and labor-union meetings. In the early thirties, a group of Muslims from all over the city got together and bought the building and turned it into a mosque. The only outward sign of this a minaret that has been constructed on the roof, straddling the ridgepole. It is a dummy minaret; no muezzin ever climbed up in it and cried out the call to prayer; it is wholly symbolic. It is a wooden minaret, it is octangular, it is louvred, and it is surmounted by an iron rod holding aloft a wooden crescent painted gold. In front of the building, in a narrow little dooryard, is a glass-fronted signbox containing a faded sign in which lines in Arabic and lines in English alternate. The lines in English read: “God is the Master of All. Muslim Mosque, Inc. There is No Other God But God. Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” The Muslims are Russians who came here from several parts of Russia and from Poland and Lithuania. Some are Tatars. Among themselves, they speak Russian, they use Arabic in their Services. People in the neighborhood call them “The Turks.” Just as the three-barred cross casts a Slavic aura over South Fifth Place, the golden crescent on the minaret up on the ridgepole of the mosque casts an Islamic aura, a Baghdadian aura, over the factories and wooden tenements and one-and two family houses and vacant lots of Powers Street. One spring day several years ago, during Lent, I was on the Driggs Avenue bus riding through Williamsburg and I remembered reading in a newspaper that in this particular year, Lent, both Roman and Eastern Orthodox, and Ramadan as well would all come around the same time, I got off the bus and walked over a couple blocks and looked in Holy Trinity and, just as I had hoped, a Lenten Mass or Liturgy was going on and I went in and attended it, and then I walked over to the mosque on Powers Street and looked in there, and just as I had hoped, a Ramadan service of some kind was going on and I took off my shoes and went in and attended it. 

We first heard mention of the origins of this mosque in New York Panorama (1938) – part of the WPA guide series. Our post on the Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan highlights passages from the guide. Here is a snippet on the Brooklyn mosque:

The Turks are exclusively Mohammedans. The only real mosque in the city, at 108 Powers Street in Brooklyn, claims most of the devout. Some belong to the Mohammedan Unity Society at 67 West 125th Street. (p. 117)

In our search for more details we were able to find a newspaper clipping from 1923 that announces the intention to build a mosque in New York City – we think it might be this very Brooklyn mosque. A transcription of the clipping follows the image.

The Afro American 27 July 1923

N.Y. To Have Mohammedan Mosque

(Crusader Service)

New York. July 28 – Mohammedans living in this city, led by Dr. Abdul Suleiman, native of Arabia, have started a drive to win Negroes [t]o their Mohammedan faith by stressing the fact of the absolute equality of races and genuine brotherhood under Mohammedanism, as in opposition to the well-known attitude of white Christians. A mosque is to be built in this city soon. 

Upon visiting the mosque we found the doors closed and the gates locked. A kind neighbor, likely suspicious of our curious behavior, told us that the building only opens occasionally for funerals. Additionally, he informed us that the caretaker lives next door. Unfortunately, the caretaker was away (or ignoring us) on the day of our visit. Muslim Mosque Inc. is located at 104 Powers St., Brooklyn, NY 11211. Additional images can be found in the Gallery.

While this site may indeed be the first formally registered mosque in New York City (the Harlem address remains to be investigated as well) it is probable that more informal musallas and prayer spaces were established by the earlier Muslim inhabitants of New York. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that this Brooklyn mosque has endured down through the decades.

It should be noted, that though they share the same name, this mosque in Brooklyn is different from the Muslim Mosque Inc. established by Malcolm X in 1964.

We’re interested in learning more about this mosque’s history and the history of its congregants. If anyone has information on this mosque, please share it with us.

Mitchell, Joseph. 2013. “Street Life: Becoming part of the city.” The New Yorker, February 11 & 18. p. 66.

New York Panorama. 1938. New York: Ramdom House.

“N.Y. to Have Mohammedan Mosque.” The Afro American. 27 July 1923. (accessed 12 March 2013)

Lonesome Road: One Woman’s Journey to the NOI

On a recent summer trip to Richmond, VA I came across Lonesome Road: Journey to Islam and Liberation by Dorothy Blake Fardan. I had almost dismissed Fardan’s memoir but soon realized I had stumbled upon a gem. In Lonesome Road Fardan recounts her life’s journey from her childhood growing up in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky to venturing a monastic path as a teenager and ultimately accepting Islam and becoming part of the Nation of Islam. However, what sets Fardan apart from other NOI members, is her race. Fardan is said to be the first white woman member of the NOI. This caused her to became a bit of a sensation. A 1976 article from the Chicago Tribune offers a brief biographical sketch of Fardan: “She said she was baptized a Catholic, entered a convent in Los Angeles to join the order of the Sisters of Social Service but was ‘radicalized’ by the student movement and her husband, Donald 12X Dorsey, a Muslim and former member of the Black Panther Party. Dr. Dorsey, who has a Ph.D in sociology and anthropology, said, ‘Around the late sixties while teaching on various college campuses, I became disenchanted and began searching for truth, something real that was not so hypocritical. I found that in Islam.'”

Though Fardan had accepted Islam it was several years before she and her husband (whom she calls “Piccolo”) could worship together in the same mosque. Below is an excerpt from her autobiography. Fardan recalls the day she tried to formally join the NOI:

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad had departed this world in February 1975, shortly before we left Canada for Jamaica. While in Jamaica, news filtered down that the Nation of Islam no longer would close its doors to caucasians or any other ethnic group. Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace D. Muhammad, stepped forward as the new leader. I had in fact already written a letter to the leadership in Chicago appealing for entrance into the Nation before the news of the open door policy broke in the New York Times.

After consulting with Piccolo, I immediately planned to go to the temple (mosque) in Kingston the following Sunday. And this I did, accompanied by Piccolo, Mackenzie and a cab full of visitors (called “fish” in the language of the Nation those days). But I could not enter that day. The brothers on post explained that they knew of the rumors about the new policy but had received no official word from Chicago at the time. I was near tears, but understood their decision and admired them for standing firm in the line of command. I knew in my heart that they were struggling with this logistical obstacle that separated us on the steps of the mosque that day. Years of teaching and policy were on trial. The Qur’an was not on trial, but the whole teaching of the “white devil” was.

I loved and respected the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, even though I never saw him in person or heard him teach. I understood the devil teaching and I understood the reality of white supremacy. I loved the fact that the Nation for forty years had preached Black pride in the streets of America’s ghettos. Even though not all Blacks in the Americas were Muslim, all had been impacted by the powerful message delivered by the Nation. By 1975, “Black is Beautiful” and “Black Liberation” were common terms in the Black Community.

I insisted that Piccolo and his visitors stay that day and I would take a cab back to the house where we lived. For days following Black Family Day and being turned away from the mosque, I felt a deep loneliness. Not that I ever felt lonely in the Universe, for all of my life the structure and beauty of the natural order had been my church and temple. I had indeed been a loner in many respects, but always found solace in nature. I thrived on solitude. But it was the loneliness of being without a people; a real community; some body of men and women with whom I held a common bond and aim. I felt a real affinity with revolutionary movements, and had moved in harmony with the peace movement and many of those identified as “hippies.” But after meeting Piccolo and Islam through him, I knew it was among the Muslims, the Nation of Islam, that I wanted to dedicate my service and loyalty. (p. 381-382)    

Fardan has authored several other books including, Yakub: and the Origin of White Supremacy and Cure: Reparations is the Cure for America’s Race Problems. Currently, Fardan, is a professor of Sociology/Anthropology at Bowie State University in Maryland.

Fardan, Dorothy Blake. 2009. Lonesome Road: Journey to Islam and Liberation. Drewryville, VA: UBUS Communications Systems.

Reynolds, Barbara. 1976. First White Woman Becomes a Muslim. Chicago Tribune, March 2, sec. C p. 12.

ISNA and America’s Muslim Library

Entrance to the Library

Just beyond the city of Indianapolis, heading west on Interstate 70 is the small town of Plainfield, Indiana. It is here, flanked by cornfields, that the headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is located. ISNA has for many years represented itself as an umbrella organization to Muslim communities, a common hub for the exchange of ideas and resources. Today, ISNA’s vision is succinctly stated as “To be an exemplary and unifying Islamic Organization in North America that contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large.” However, it is perhaps best known for its annual convention in which tens of thousands of Muslims typically gather over Labor Day weekend.

Lesser known, however, is that ISNA once had intentions to house a library, and a fairly major one at that. We turn now to an August 1981 edition of Islamic Horizons (ISNA’s monthly publication):

With the wheels of the tractors clattering and the thud of the trees felled, MSA’s $3.4 million project for a mosque and library took off on an auspicious day of Ramadan 1, 1401.

The agreement signed between the MSA and the Delbert E. Wilsey Construction Company (Indianapolis) and the Dana Engineering Co., Inc., a Muslim architectural firm operating out of Chicago provides for an eight-corner mosque with a dome, though the dome will not be visible from the outside. It will also have a mezzanine, a kind of partial second floor for women. When completed the mosque will have a capacity for 500 people, with separate entrances and wadhu [sic] (ablution) areas for men and women.

The library, as envisaged in the plan, will contain films, slides, videotapes, and about 300,000 titles classical and contemporary Islamic writings in English as well as Arabic.

The proposed library is expected to be a storehouse of unbiased Islamic research and knowledge.

(Islamic Horizons 10.8, p. 1)

Library Assistance Program, image courtesy of ISNA 1984 Annual Report

Having grown up in Plainfield, my earliest memories of the headquarters were often of its unique library space. The main level of the mosque is divided into two large spaces, the first being the prayer hall, restrooms and lobby. The second space, for the library, was beyond the set of glass doors in the above photo. During the late ’80s and early ’90s I remember there being a large curved circulation and information desk, with a return slot and fully equipped. I also vaguely remember a hinged half door that separated the public reading area from what would have been the librarians’ offices and work space. A second set of inner doors led into the library proper. This ample space was crowded with bookshelves, card catalogs, and reading chairs. A section of the library space still opens up to the second floor allowing for a surrounding balcony to look down upon what was once a reading area with study carrels and what is now the main library stacks. Despite the careful measures that were taken to establish a library, I have no recollection of the library being heavily trafficked.To my memory, the library was often dark, the card catalogs empty, and the circulation desk vacant.

Today, all the remaining books have been consolidated into one compact area with the remaining library space having been converted into offices. There appear to be a number of useful works of either scholarly or historic value remaining, but a handlist or catalog that documents these works still needs to be made.

Beyond the in-house library, ISNA had also initiated a Library Assistance Program and a Film Loan Program.

Library Assistance Program: This program is designed to set up a library or augment the collection of existing Islamic libraries in local organizations. Over 237 books were donated to six Islamic centers or masjids during the period. A large set of books, pamphlets and other literature is in the process of being mailed to all MSA chapters and MCA affiliates.

The Film Loan Program: The Program did not add new films to its collection in 1984-1985. During this period it loaned 23 films to local organizations. An estimated number of 2,000 persons viewed these films. 

(ISNA 1984 Annual Report, p. 9)

In a recent visit to the ISNA headquarters we decided to photograph the library space as it stands now. We are hoping to obtain a grant in order to return and properly document the materials there.

For more images see the Gallery.

The ISNA library stacks as viewed from the balcony

Present entrance to the library stacks

Former location of the library circulation desk

Between the stacks

Classical Arabic books in the ISNA library collection

Islamic Society of North America. 1981. “MSA’s Project Finally Takes Off.” Islamic Horizons. 10.8 (1).

Islamic Society of North America. 1984. “Services and Resources.” 3rd Islamic Society of North America Annual Report. 9.

Annual report images taken from the Archive of Muslim American History and Life.

Strolling Through Istanbul

Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City is the essential guidebook for any curious visitor to Istanbul. Originally written in 1972 by the late Hillary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, the book has since been revised by Freely and reprinted in 2010. Sumner-Boyd was a professor of Humanities at Robert College, Bosphorus University. Freely, originally a New Yorker is currently a professor of physics at Bosphorus University in Istanbul and author of over forty books and guides. The authors, who are intimately familiar with Istanbul, have outlined several walking tours in and around the city and bring attention to the major historic sites as well as many others often overlooked by tourists. Sumner-Boyd and Freely go beyond simply mentioning historic locations but animate each stop along the stroll with vivid historical descriptions, biographical sketches, and architectural interests. Through their well crafted prose they guide the eye to the more unique aspects of each location. Their engaging personalities and love for the city comes through in their writing making them the ideal tour guides to Istanbul. The walking tours are divided into geographic sections for a total of 23 chapters that span up the Golden Horn to Eyüp, along the Bosphorus, and down to to the Prince’s Islands. Despite its considerable size, a generous 487 pages, this book is always tucked into a bag and towed around the city. It’s through this guide that we discovered such gems as the Yeraltı Cami (Underground Mosque), Namazgahs (open air prayer spaces), and the serene Küçük Aya Sofia Camii.

Yeraltı Cami 

Leaving Karaköy we begin walking along the seaside road, which is always bustling with pedestrians rushing to and from the ferry station. About 200 metres along, past the ferry pier, we turn left and then left again at the next street. A short way along on our right we come to the obscure entrance of Yeraltı Cami, the Underground Mosque. This is a strange and sinister place. The mosque is housed in the low, vaulted cellar of keep of a Byzantine tower or castle which is probably to be identified with the Castle of Galata. This was the place where was fastened the one end of the chain which closed the mouth of the Golden Horn in times of siege. Descending into the mosque, we find ourselves in a maze of dark, narrow passages between a forest of squat passages supporting low vaults, six rows of nine or 54 in all. Towards the rear of the mosque we find the tombs of two sainted martyrs, Abu Sufyan and Amiri Wahabi, both of whom are supposed to have died in the first Arab siege of the city in the seventh century. Their graves were revealed to a Nakşibendi dervish in a dream in 1640, whereupon Sultan Murat IV constructed a shrine on the site. Then in 1757 the whole dungeon was converted into a mosque by the Grand Vezir Köş Mustafa Paşa.

The Underground MosqueThe interior of the Underground Mosque.


In the centre of the square, Kadirga Liman Meydanı, there is a very striking and unique monument. This is the namazgah of Esma Sultan, daughter of Ahmet III, which was built in 1779. It is a great rectangular block of masonry, on the two faces of which are fountains with ornamental inscriptions, the corners having ornamental niches, while the third side is occupied by a staircase which leads to the flat roof. This is the only surviving example in Stamboul of a namazgah, or open-air place of prayer, in which the kıble or direction of prayer is indicated but which is otherwise without furniture or decoration. Namazgahs are common enough in Anatolia and the remains of at least two others can be seen in the environs of Istanbul, one in Okmeydanı overlooking the Golden Horn and the other at Anadolu Hisarı on the Bosphorus; but this is the only one left in the old city.

Ironically one is no longer allowed to pray here.

SS. Sergius and Bacchus 

At the end of this lane, we come to one of the entrances to the courtyard of the beautiful Küçük Aya Sofya Camii, the former Byzantine church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. The church was begun by Justinian and his Empress Theodora in 527, five years before the commencement of the present church of Haghia Sophia. It thus belongs to that extraordinary period of prolific and fruitful experiment in architectural forms which produced, in this city, buildings so ambitious and so different as the present church, Haghia Sophia itself and Haghia Eirene…

In SS Sergius and Bacchus, as in almost all of the surviving Byzantine churches of the city, we must simply use our imagination in order to recapture the extraordinary beauty of its original condition. The walls, like those of Haghia Sophia, were revetted with veined by variegated marbles; the vaults and domes glittered with mosaics. “By the sheen of its marbles it was more resplendent than the sun,” says Procopius, “and everywhere it was filled profusely with gold.”

The Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan

My eyes quickly scan the spines of books lining the overburdened shelves, stacked and piled with patient tomes. The letters are familiar, my mind registers them as English, however the words are Turkish. My brain struggles to make sense of the jumbled script and forces my eyes to settle on words I can understand. New York City Guide.

This is no ordinary guide to New York City, the greying hard cover, weathered binding and strained spine reveal its age. Instinctively I turn to the verso to find it is a 1939 print. While Martin is methodically searching through shelves and amassing his own collection of books, I settle into a chair on the dusty 4th floor of Simurg Bookstore. I skim the table of contents and flip to the index searching for any indication of Muslims living in Lower Manhattan.

I’ve read contemporary studies, newspapers and opinion pieces of the evidence supporting the existence of places such as Little Syria. The case for Muslims being a part of New York’s unique tapestry has been made. However, at times I need the evidence to manifest itself to me – to appear in a 1939 guidebook. I need for the rosy fragrance of deteriorating pages to invade my senses, to witness acidity yellowing the pages, to feel the strain of cradling a heavy book on my wrists. I want to read paragraphs, uninhibited by an author’s interjections, on the Muslims of New York.

At a time when hotels were rented for $2.00 a night, subway fare cost 5 cents, and traveling via steamship was normal, baklava was being sold on the street corners of Lower Manhattan.

In the market section, comprising a world of its own, is the Syrian Quarter, established in the late 1800’s at the foot of Washington Street from Battery Place to Rector Street. A sprinkling of Turks, Armenians, Arabs, and Greeks also live here. Although the fez has given way to the snap-brim, the narghile has been abandoned for cigarettes, the coffee houses and tobacco and confectionery shops of the Levantines still remain.

Using the same methods and types of implements as native Syrian bakers, the confectioners make delicious sweets such as baclawa (chopped walnuts or pistachios, wrapped in forty layers of baked dough of gauze-like thinness flavored with goat’s milk butter and drenched in honey), knafie (twisted hank of fried dough with a core of chopped pistachios flavored as baclawa), sweet-sour apricot paste sprinkled with pistachios strings of walnuts dipped in grape syrup, and “Syrian delight” scented with attar of roses. Restaurants feature shish kebab (spit-broiled lamb) and rice cooked in salted vine leaves, and furnish narghiles upon request. Other neighborhood stores sell graceful earthen water jars; brass, silver, and pewter trays; tables inlaid with mother of pearl; brass lamp shades fringed with variegated beads, and Syrian silks of rainbow hues. (p. 76)

Flipping between the index and the text, my fingers interlaced with the pages, I learn that in addition to Syrians residing in Lower Manhattan they also lived in Brooklyn.

[I]n the Red Hook vicinity there are many Arabs and Syrians. It is anomalous that Brooklyn, the borough of homes and churches, should have some of the worst slums (Williamsburg, Brownsville, Red Hook) of the nation, yet such is the case.” (p. 433)

Concerning South Brooklyn:

Here are Erie and Atlantic basins, the Todd and United Shipyards, the busy State Barge Canal Terminal, and miles of freight railway tracks. Sailors from a hundred foreign ports fill the bars and rooming houses, and the prevailing atmosphere of a great international seaport is increased by the Syrian shops and coffee houses with their Arabic signs, on Atlantic Avenue. (p. 463)

Finally, on diverse Brownsville:

Brownsville extends from Ralph Avenue to Junius Street, between Liberty and Hegeman Avenues. With more than two hundred thousand people dwelling in its 2.19 square miles, it is the most densely populated district in Brooklyn. The population is predominantly Jewish. A large group of Negroes lives on Rockaway Avenue, Thatford Avenue, and Osborn Street between Livonia and Sutter Avenues. The only Moorish colony in New York is on Livonia Avenue between Rockaway and Stone Avenues. Italians live in the northern section of Brownsville; and on Thatford Avenue near Belmont is a small Arabian and Syrian quarter.” (p. 498)

Entranced, I continued to search. What else could I find? And what exactly was this treasure I had found?

A few months later, and back in the states I learned that the guidebook I stumbled upon in Istanbul is only one of an impressive series of books, all part of The American Guide Series – the first guidebooks to cover the states and regions of the United States. This warranted a trip to the library where we picked up a few more books on the guidebook series and the program that started them. In the mid 1930’s and in response to the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal. The WPA was enacted to employ millions of workers in public works projects. One of the more creative WPA projects was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP); this division was created to support written work and writers during the Depression. The Federal Writers’ Project relied upon struggling writers to document the peoples and places of the United States. Many notable writers held modest careers as FWP writers, including Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston. More can be found on the WPA and the Writer’s Project in Soul of a People (book and documentary). The American Guide Series and the research that went into it ended up being an incredible anthropological study of the American people. I found that the New York City Guide is the companion volume to New York Panorama, a broader view of the city’s life and history.

The Panorama provided even richer details of the early immigrants.

Of the three near-Eastern groups, the Syrians have the largest population in the city, numbering 30,000 throughout greater New York. The Armenians come next with 22,000, while the Turks in New York number only about 300.

Only 1,000 of the city’s Syrians live in Manhattan, along Washington Street between Morris and Rector Streets. The largest Syrian colony lies between De Graw and State Streets, running from the East River to Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. A smaller settlement has grown up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn.

The Turks are settled mainly along Rivington and Forsythe Streets in Manhattan.

Armenians and Syrians in the city are almost without exception Christian, the former adhering to the Gregorian Church while the latter have formed a number of sects related to the Greek Orthodox and the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church at 57 Washington Street, best known Syrian church in the city, conducts services in Syrian.

The Turks are exclusively Mohammedans. The only real mosque in the city, at 108 Powers Street in Brooklyn, claims most of the devout. Some belong to the Mohammedan Unity Society at 67 West 125th Street. (p. 117)

In many ways, Michael Gomez says it best, “arguments are necessarily more tentative than conclusive…” (Gomez 1998, 60). Despite the hopes I once held for Muslim Syrians in Lower Manhattan, a mere two sentences on the Turks has abated my disheartenment. How appropriate is it then that I found the New York City Guide tucked away on a dusty shelf in Istanbul. Somewhere in the pages, interspersed between the lines lies a fleeting truth. I am caught between discerning facts and waiting for unanticipated discoveries, clinging to the fine details. Culling for the truth and always hoping for something more, these small nuggets of information keep the search alive.

Gody, Lou, Chester D. Harvey, and James Reed, eds. 1939. New York City Guide. New York: Random House.

New York Panorama. 1938. New York: Ramdom House.

Michael Gomez. 1998. Exchanging Our Country Marks. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Ephemera: The Garden of Allah

Always in pursuit of a new opportunity to find unique items, Martin and I ventured to an ephemera fair. It is only recently that we’ve started to appreciate and understand the potential value of ephemera. Ephemera consists of everyday one-time use materials; printed objects that were never intended to have enduring historic value. This includes everything from pamphlets, brochures and postcards to posters, stock certificates and advertisements. For example the Library of Congress has a collection of restaurant menus. Though many of these materials may not hold much value on their own, when viewed in a series or as a collection they begin to illustrate a story, a window into social history. The perceptions, thoughts and ideas of people begin to gain clarity through the printed material that they created or read. A single postcard then is only a piece in a larger, elaborate, puzzle.

Overwhelmed and timid we took a quick walk through sixty-some exhibitor booths. The larger of the two rooms was designated for dealers and a smaller room for members exhibiting their personal collections. In addition to the exhibit space there are sessions and discussions for members of the society. We spent all of our time among the dealer booths. We narrowed our focus and decided to search through the following categories that were present there:

1. Black ephemera

2. Religion

3. Foreign Travel

Personally we were searching for material related to early Muslims in America or how Americans have imagined Islam. Unfortunately our searches yielded few results. One of the two pieces we did find is this:

The Garden of Allah – Southern Arizona and California is a travel brochure, copyright 1936, for the Rock Island Lines, a railroad company. Though Allah is only mentioned in the title the imagery it intends to invoke is scattered throughout it’s pages:

Thus, in four words, may be told “The Winter’s Tale” that summarizes all the varied delights of Southwestern Resorts reached directly by the Golden State Route.

Romance, color, exotic charm, historic interest, scenic grandeur, social vivacity, out-door sport, – all in the golden wash of a never-failing winter sun – at El Paso-Juarez, Tucson, Chandler, Phoenix, Litchfield, Indio, Palm Springs, San Diego, Coronado, La Jolla, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara!

The fair, called Ephemera 32, was presented by the Ephemera Society of America in Old Greenwich, CT.