Friday, May 28, 2004

Prayers and Parking Meters: Muslim Cabbies in New York City

Daniel J. Wakin says that "by one estimate, half of the [New York] city's 40,000 taxi drivers" are Muslims ("When No Mosque Is Near," New York Times, May 28, 2004). Evidently, so are nearly half the taxi drivers in Toronto, "home to Canada's biggest Muslim community": "Gail Beck-Souter, general manager of Beck, Toronto's biggest taxi company, . . . said 40 per cent of her 1,600 drivers are Muslim" (Jan Wong, "Cabbies' Life Suits Muslims," Globe and Mail, October 7, 2002). Safeeldien Osman, a Muslim cab driver in Toronto, says, "For us, taxi is the best business. Because we have the freedom to go to the mosque five times a day and nobody bothers us" (Wong, Globe and Mail, October 7, 2002). Apparently, that is not the case in New York, the city where a man's desperate search for a good parking spot can be a plot of life or at least a novel:
The drivers congregate in South Asian restaurants that provide prayer space in basements or back rooms. They have an imprint of the city's mosques in their brains, at the ready wherever a fare may take them as prayer time closes in. Using a small carpet kept in the trunk, they pray in the back seat, or even on the side of the road. . . .

Keeping the faith, however, is not always easy for these men. . . . The biggest obstacles are parking, timing and cleanliness. Muslims are required to wash before praying, and the place itself must be clean. The ritual generally lasts 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the circumstances.

Some drivers say the threat of bias attacks after Sept. 11 has made them too fearful to prostrate themselves in the streets, but not Mr. [Amar] Abdemula. "I pray any place, because protection is from God," he said.

Mr. Abdemula spoke at La Guardia Airport. He was one of a steady stream of South Asian, Arab and African men who made their way to a nook beneath an overpass near the Delta Airlines terminal that has become an informal prayer space.

A large cheap rug lay over a bed of ornamental mulch. The men first washed in a restroom at the arrivals terminal. They then unrolled tiny carpets over the rug, took off their shoes and faced east toward Mecca to pray as planes roared overhead and traffic whooshed by. A tuft of pine trees hid them from the road. In front of their bending bodies was a chain link fence and then a sea of yellow cabs waiting their turn to approach the taxi stand. The cabbies prayed quickly so they could reach their taxis before it was their time to move ahead in line. . . .

Sometimes it boils down to a choice between prayers or fares. Mr. Abdemula said if he is near a mosque where parking is difficult, he will put on his off-duty sign and forsake business well before the hour of midday prayer.

Ibrahim Khan, 24, who arrived in the United States from Pakistan three years ago, lucked into a parking place one Friday near New York's main mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York at 96th Street and Third Avenue. A woman heading for La Guardia had hailed him at 65th Street and First Avenue, but he turned her down. "I said I can't go because it was my prayer time," he said. "She said, 'O.K., I'm sorry.' I said it's O.K." The loss of the $35 was a big chunk out of the $150 to $200 Mr. Khan said he earns in a day. . . .

Many cabdrivers go to the 96th Street mosque for midday prayers on Friday, Islam's holy day, when it is important to pray in a group. Until recently, several cabdrivers and mosque officials said, the police would turn a blind eye to double-parked taxis. But that has changed, and the tickets are flowing, they said. The mosque provides forms stating that drivers were present for prayer services, for use in traffic court. Police officials say that there have been more complaints from neighbors because of an increase in attendance on Fridays but that they have not been giving out any more tickets.

Along with city's smaller neighborhood mosques, restaurants are a major prayer destination. Several are on or near Lexington Avenue in the 20's, a patch of South Asian businesses with a long yellow oasis - a taxi stand.

The Shipa Kasturi Pavilion on Lexington and 26th Street is a bare, fluorescent-lit Bangladeshi restaurant with dirty linoleum and garish pictures of horses and a city skyline on the wall.

Drivers go to the counter, get a key, unlock a side door and descend a narrow wooden staircase. A larger freezer, sacks of onions and rice, boxes of potatoes and gas meters crowd the already claustrophobic space. A clean, green-carpeted empty room is reached through a door, where the drivers pray.

One, Mohammad Manzur Alam, said he had appealed to the owner's sense of duty as a Muslim and talked him into providing the room, soap and a basin to wash in. Drivers chipped in for the renovation of the room and the carpet. But the street runs two ways: many restaurants benefit by providing the space because it ensures customers.

On this day in May, Mr. Alam had gathered a few of his fellow Bangladeshi drivers through cellphone calls. It is better to pray together, he said. After ablutions and prostrations, they ate upstairs in the restaurant, for a full cultural experience of faith, food and language.

"We can do two necessary things together: lunch and prayer," Mr. Alam said.

Mr. Alam said he was also campaigning for a shed at Kennedy International Airport, where he said drivers pray in the middle of a lot, but had yet to receive support from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Commission officials said they knew of no such request and referred the matter to the Port Authority because it was the agency's jurisdiction. The Port Authority said it had not received a formal request but would consider the idea.

Other restaurants in Manhattan with prayer space include Sheezan, on Church Street in TriBeCa, and the Dhaka Restaurant on 31st Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. When a visitor asked about prayers at Dhaka, the counterman led the way to a closet and produced a carpet for worshipers to use in the back of the restaurant. He said many drivers come in the evening after their shift. At Niamat Kada, on Lexington Avenue and 28th Street, there was only space for two or three worshipers in the basement.

The South Asian restaurant "becomes sort of like a community center, like so many things in New York does," said Tony Carnes, a sociologist of religion and co-editor of the just-released "Asian American Religions: The Making and Remaking of Borders and Boundaries" (New York University Press), which includes an article on the drivers written by Professor Bender and a student [Fenggang Yang].

"What's unique about it is creating ritual purity in a place that may be an impure place," Mr. Carnes said, referring to a restaurant's association with heavy traffic, trash and restrooms. "They see it as a place of order and of invitation and of relaxation." (Wakin, May 28, 2004)
Muslim cabbies struggle to navigate New York City in order to practice rituals of the world before "the time of abstract labour (money, the universal equivalent), the time of the clock" (Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde, London: Verso, 1995, p. 34) by turning to modern technologies: "Like sunrise and sunset, the timetable changes constantly and depends on location. Muslims usually carry schedules or consult a Web site" (Wong, October 7, 2002). In the process, they become tactical users -- "unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality" (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life) -- of the city whose social geography is ordered by the logic of accumulation that exploits their labor.

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