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A song sung by the female students of the Sunnat-ul-Jamaat mosque in the Bronx on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday (fig. 40) suggests themes in Muslim self-representation in New York City shared by mosque architecture as well. The melody was a southern railroader’s dirge made famous during the folk-song revival of the early 1960s by groups such as The Journeymen, The Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary. It also became famous under the song title “Five Hundred Miles”:

If you miss the train I’m on
You will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow 500 miles
500 miles, 500 miles
Lord I’m 500 miles away from home
Not a shirt on my back
Not a penny to my name
Lord I can’t go back home this-a-way
Figure 40. Young students at the Sunnat-ul-Jamaat mosque in the Bronx. Photograph by Susan Slyomovics.
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The Peter, Paul and Mary version was a worldwide best-selling record, and clearly it must have been heard in Guyana. The original American verses speak of the adventure, the poverty, and the romance of the lonesome road that never reverts back home. The new Muslim lyrics make a different use of the metaphor of life as a road: “Do you know what Islam says / It says life’s a big big chance / It says that life is a far road space / Return upon rest.” The words of the chorus replace “This-a-way, Lord I can’t go back home this-a-way” with “A way of life, Islam is a way of life, a complete way.”

The melody, a kind of architectural framework, is given, but the content is new. Similarly, a pamphlet describing the Shi‘ite mosque services, which was pressed into my hand by the Iraqi imam of the Brooklyn Shi‘ite temple during the bombing of Baghdad by the United States and its allies in the Gulf War, bears this legend superimposed on a map of the United States: “This is our destiny, let us make it.” Muslims express their culture in new ways within the space and institutions of their larger sociopolitical world.

The movement I am charting begins with interior space gutted, transformed, and even acoustically reconfigured to Muslim sacred space, then expands outward according to the increased membership and prosperity of the community, and finally triumphantly rewrites American locales, either transiently, as for the Muslim World Day Parade, or permanently, as in the case of the new Manhattan All-Muslim mosque on Third Avenue and Ninety-sixth Street, between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, officially serving all of New York City (fig. 4, this volume). While Muslims would acknowledge that a mosque requires little more than a property or rented space, many seek such impressive buildings. One of the members of the Guyanese Bronx mosque said to me that their mosque in the Bronx, the Sunnat-ul-Jamaat, was not a real mosque. The real mosque was a picture appliqued on her purse depicting a Saudi mosque. A real mosque, she said, had a minaret and a dome and was richly decorated inside and outside. Her description in fact resembled the official All-Muslim mosque.

We can never be sure, when using architecture or vernacular architecture to “read” contemporary ethnicity, whether a given reading accurately interprets what is being said. Even though architectural phenomena are hard and objective, their meanings are soft and ambiguous. Architecture represents social meaning. Physical space also affects its occupants. For example, do Turkish worshippers in a transformed Oriental-style movie house come to think of themselves as “Oriental”?

New York City is a center of cultural production, a process that has been more laissez faire in the United States than in Europe. Ritual prayer and creating spaces for that prayer have been central activities in Muslim community life. In the Muslim World Day parade—featuring, above all, mosque replicas—and the new mosques, Muslims are finding ways to create new communities while inserting themselves into this particular state and its larger society. This is a process that leaves both sides changed.

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