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Al-Fatih Mosque, Brooklyn

A third example of transforming structures designed for other purposes into an acceptable mosque is the Turkish Al-Fatih mosque located in the multi-ethnic Sunset Park district of Brooklyn at 5911 Eighth Avenue. Serving some five hundred and fifty members, the building, purchased in 1979, provides space, not only for prayer but also for a school on weekends, a women’s organization, youth clubs, and student cultural activities. The mosque is located on a block that houses a series of Turkish businesses whose storefronts fill half of the block, among them a halal grocery for Middle Eastern foods and a business that acts as a cultural and linguistic broker for the local Turkish-speaking community by providing income tax, realty, air travel, and translation services. Sunset Park’s ethnic diversity is evident in the adjacent block, which houses a Japanese hairdresser, a Buddhist storefront temple, and a Chinese bookstore and restaurant.

The Turkish mosque was originally a movie theater, designed, as many American movie houses have been, as a Hollywood amalgam of Orientalist-Moorish-Arabesque fantasies (cf. Haider, this volume, fig. 6). The conversion of the movie house into a mosque reclaims the Orientalist style, invests it with new meaning, and literally reorients the building. The exterior portals have been refashioned by a Turkish carpenter, Irfan Altinbasak, to form semicircular arches. New American-made plastic-based Turkish-styled tiles are being used to replace the original Iznik tiles, dislodged one by one by the inclement New York City weather, to redecorate the exterior.

As worshippers enter on the left, they encounter the former ticket booth area, now converted to a religious bookstore, while on the right-hand side, there is a wall decorated with beautiful Turkish tiles from Iznik. Although a donor’s name might be calligraphically acknowledged on mosque walls in Islamic lands, it is a distinctly American touch to set up a wall of donors: eventually each tile will carry the name of a donor who contributed to the establishment of the mosque. What was once the lobby of the movie house is now divided into sections by a series of arcades layered with marble added by the Turkish carpenter, a genuine Oriental addition to the original Oriental decor. The arcades serve no structural purpose but provide a decorative and emotional tone. Once, the Oriental touches made the movie theater feel like a luxurious, privileged space, set off from ordinary life; what they do now is “to make the interior feel like a mosque,” as the Turkish leaders informed me.

The main part of the praying area is the actual screening auditorium, the back wall of which serves as the qibla, with a wooden minbar and a tiled mihrab. The stage where the screen once was has become a cordoned-off women’s section. The Turkish mosque is thus a very powerful reinscription of interior space: American moviegoers once faced in the opposite direction to present-day Muslim worshippers, who literally turn their backs on the space where sex goddesses were once displayed on the screen, which is instead now occupied by women screened off from view.

Curvilinear, draperylike forms overhang the stage and have been highlighted and emphasized by painted designs. The carpeted interior is bare, with the exception of two model mosques. One is used as a collection box, and the second, evoking the minaret skyline of Istanbul, is placed on a raised dais; no explanations were given to me for its presence. Amplification is only permitted in the interior of the mosque. The imam expressed a wish for an exterior dome and a minaret, but here, too, there had been difficulty in obtaining the necessary building permit.


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The Muslim World Day Parade and “Storefront” Mosques of New York City
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