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Brooklyn Muslims document their past and present in new oral history project

Left to right, Hassan Ben Jaafar of the musical group Innov Gnawa, Liz H. Strong and Karim Ababou record an oral history interview in February 2018 about Ben Jaafar’s music and his life in Brooklyn. Photo by Diane Duggan

(RNS) – Zaheer Ali has spent over a decade living and working in Brooklyn as a Muslim.

But over the past year, as he put together an ambitious archive of local Muslim voices, he’s learned a lot about the lives of the diverse communities who call the New York City borough their home.

As the Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral historian, Ali launched the organization’s yearlong flagship project, Muslims in Brooklyn, last fall. The project, which features 50 interviews with local Muslims, is going public this week.

“Brooklyn is a gathering place for Muslims from all over the world,” Ali told Religion News Service. “This project reinforced the multidimensionality of these communities, that we should not collapse or flatten the experiences of Muslims.”

The interviews, ranging in length from 90 minutes to three hours, will be collected in a permanent, searchable digital archive paired with public educational and art programs.

The participants come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds – including African-American, Yemeni, Palestinian, Moroccan, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi, Tatar, Haitian and Puerto Rican – and from 18 different Brooklyn neighborhoods. They range from 24 to 74 years of age, from unobservant to conservative Muslim and everything in between, and represent occupations including entrepreneurs, community organizers, clerics, medical professionals, homemakers, business owners, laborers, educators, musicians, artists and more.

“An Ummah, In Conversation” is an illustration for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. Image by Mohammed Fayaz

Interviewees include a few better-known names in “Muslim Cool” author Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, Bangladeshi Feminist Collective founding member Shahana Hanif, 9/11 first responder Stacey Salimah-Bell and Asad Dandia, a Columbia University graduate student who was a plaintiff in the 2013 class-action suit against New York Police Department surveillance.

About 22 percent of America’s total Muslim population lives in New York City, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding estimates, and among the city’s five boroughs, Brooklyn has the most mosques – nearly 100. That’s one of the highest concentrations of mosques in the country.

Brooklyn’s Muslim history is as deep as it is dense, serving as home to one of the country’s oldest mosques, the Brooklyn Muslim Mosque. It was established in the borough’s Williamsburg neighborhood by a local community of Eastern European Muslims, who in 1907 founded the Lithuanian Tatar society – later called the American Mohammedan Society, and now recognized as America’s oldest surviving Islamic congregation.

Another significant historical landmark, known as the State Street Mosque, is based in Brooklyn Heights. Founded in 1939 by Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and his wife, Sayedah Khadijah Faisal, the mosque is formally known as the Islamic Mission of America. It was “an early spiritual nurturing ground” for African-American Sunni Muslims, as well as for many immigrants who were arriving in the mid- to late 20th century, Ali explained.

Brooklyn also boasts Masjid Abdul Muhsi Khalifah, one of the mosques that Malcolm X founded while part of the Nation of Islam, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. And local Muslim musicians like rapper Mos Def have also played critical roles pushing the boundaries of art.

“Muslim Woman in Brooklyn making her Salat (prayer),” 2007. Photo © Chester Higgins Jr./chesterhiggins.com

Muslims’ contributions to New York City are a matter of public record. In July, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding published the second edition of its Muslims for American Progress impact report, quantifying Muslims’ contributions to New York City and pairing the statistics with portraits and personal narratives from more than 80 of New York’s most prominent Muslim voices.

ISPU measured Muslims’ contributions to life in New York in everything from civics to medicine to philanthropy to education. Two years ago, about 770,000 Muslims resided in New York City, making up about 9 percent of the city’s population that year. In New York City, Muslims make up over 12 percent of all pharmacists, 9 percent of all doctors, 11 percent of engineers, almost 40 percent of taxi drivers and more than 57 percent of street food vendors.

Ali’s project reflects this diversity. His team spent months working with communities to choose their interviewees who would help capture three ideas: that Muslims have a long history in the U.S., in New York and in Brooklyn; that Muslims represent multiple ethnicities and nationalities; and that, in many ways, they have shaped Brooklyn as much as Brooklyn has shaped them.

The project was something Ali had been hoping to do since he began working with the Brooklyn Historical Society in 2015, and the anxieties of the political moment made it feel more critical than ever.

“In the backdrop of this project was this really ugly rhetoric about Muslims, these policy-based and legislative attacks on Muslims and this rise in anti-Muslim bias incidents,” he said. Indeed, after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in favor of the White House’s travel ban, the Brooklyn Historical Society’s president published a statement underscoring the organization’s commitment to highlighting the stories and contributions of local Muslims.

The interviews reveal a resilience that’s inspiring, he said.

Zaheer Ali, oral historian at Brooklyn Historical Society and project director for Muslims in Brooklyn. Photo by Maggie Shannon

But the “intimate conversations” within the oral histories also “challenge Muslim exceptionalism” by simultaneously exposing the vibrancy and mundaneness of Muslims’ lives, Ali explained. The narrators discuss universal experiences: their childhood, going to school, their crushes, the fights they had with their parents as teens, their concerns about their children’s futures.

“So we see that Muslims are certainly very concerned by Islamophobia, but they don’t define themselves by it,” he said. That is the unique value of oral history as a medium for this project: It allows communities to document their experiences in their own voices, giving them the space to speak freely without being cut and framed by editors and curators.

The project kicked off with a free public listening party Thursday (Dec. 6) at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s office in Brooklyn Heights. Ali said he hopes the audio compilation whets listeners’ appetite to learn more.

“This is a lot of audio, but there’s still no way to summarize the totality of Brooklyn Muslims’ experiences in 50 interviews,” he noted.

It may be less accessible than other digital products in the short term – it is not so easy to consume as, say, a YouTube video or podcast – but as technology evolves, the Muslims in Brooklyn archive is designed to stand the test of time and remain a resource for educators, scholars and media producers.

“If we want to change the narrative, then we need to change the information available to the people who write those narratives,” Ali noted.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, focuses on Muslims in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

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