New reality for Muslims
Masjid As-Sabur, sometimes called “the black mosque” by Las Vegas Muslims, sits on the backside of downtown, amid a mishmash of housing projects, run-down apartments and abandoned lots. Across the freeway looms the Lady Luck casino, its neon sign seeming to mock the neighborhood below.
There is nothing much lucky about this corner of the Crystal City, and a main thrust of the mosque’s work involves trying to heal it, with food giveaways, free health clinics, demonstrations against crack houses and the like.
Nonetheless, a visit inside the gated mosque last Friday before prayers found the imam, one month after the fact, still glowing about the election of the nation’s first black president.
“The election was everything everybody said it was,” said Fateen Seifullah, the 40-year-old imam, or spiritual leader, an African American who spent his early years in the South. “It represents the apology African Americans have been waiting so long for.”
In the month since, Seifullah went on, the election “has healed wounds that we didn’t even know existed. We didn’t know, some of us, that we were carrying that much baggage.”
Seifullah offered no whiff of cynicism, struck not a single cautionary note. His unbridled enthusiasm was remarkable, as unexpected as it was informative. I had first met him five years ago in a different context, a more difficult moment.
I was beginning a yearlong project in Las Vegas, profiling the Muslim community of a single city in post-Sept. 11 America. One of my first stops had been at Masjid As-Sabur, watching a long line of down-and-outers wait outside the gates for the start of a Sunday lunch giveaway.
Seifullah had been polite, but also reserved. It would take some time before he would sit down for an interview. In that time -- for American Muslims a difficult passage of double takes from passersby, of slurs and telephone threats and FBI visits -- a measured wariness seemed a natural response to a stranger with a tape recorder asking questions.
Still, Seifullah had seemed to keep his guard up more than many of the Muslims I came to know. Now, though, it was altogether down.
He remembered his mother calling on election night and saying, “In my life, this has happened. In my lifetime.” He remembered his own emotional response, his eyes watering as Sen. Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech in Chicago that night.
He was moved in particular by one line from that speech: “It was when he said, ‘This is the time, and we are who we have been waiting for. . . .’ We don’t have to wait another four years. We don’t have to wait for our children to do it. It’s on us. Now.”
Seifullah had lived in Louisiana and Compton before his mother, seeking to protect her children from gang violence, moved the family here in 1982. He was born into a family of Southern Baptist preachers, but his kin came to accept his embrace of Islam.
That the president-elect had a grandfather who was Muslim, that his name is both Swahili and Arabic -- all this doubled the sweetness of the victory, from Seifullah’s perspective. The Muslim community here, as elsewhere, had been drawn into the skirmish, waged mainly on the Internet, over whether Obama was a secret Muslim -- and whether, as former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell finally suggested on national television, it should matter if he was.
While euphoric about the election, Seifullah remains aware of the reality that lurks just beyond the mosque gate. The demand at the weekly food giveaways, he said, is as strong as ever. At the mosque’s health clinic, the volunteer doctors no longer are seeing only the poor. They now also treat working people from the lower middle classes who have lost health benefits.
And, he noted, there was still a war on, the economy still was in a tailspin, and large-scale terrorism had been unloosed again, this time in India -- an attack certain to mean more scrutiny and pain for Muslims, particularly the Pakistani immigrants who dominate the mosque across town.
And, finally, there was life itself, with its sometimes unfathomable surprises -- a reality that would interject itself painfully after prayers with the approach of a familiar face from my previous time among the Muslims of Las Vegas.
Iqbal Khan, a stout-chested casino security guard, was one of the first Muslims I met. He had come to Masjid As-Sabur with Connie, his wife of Irish descent, to renew their wedding vows on what I believe was their 25th anniversary. She had listened with pride as he gave me an impromptu introductory course in Mongol history.
A self-educated former seafarer, Khan spent a lot of time with me over the next year, offering tutorials on Islam and international politics and other topics -- all delivered in his distinct, confident roar. He became one of my favorites, and we kept in touch for a time after the reporting was done.
Now, with Friday prayers finished, this same man came up to me in the mosque, clasped his arms around me and then, tears rolling down his cheeks, his eyes sunken, began to speak in a halting, subdued whisper.
“My Connie,” he said.
A few months earlier, he explained, she had died in a most tragic way. She had injured her back in a fall and was on medication that left her disoriented and finally dispirited. I didn’t ask for the details.
“We might never know why,” he said, “but I can’t talk about it. She was not just my wife. She was my friend -- my best friend. I think of her every single step.”
It was a painful conversation, and we tried to lighten it a bit by turning for a moment to politics, a subject which Khan used to shout about for hours without stop. It was no good. He tapped his chest.
“She was here,” he said, “in my heart.”
With that, Khan gave a final hug, yanked on a knit cap and walked slowly for the gate.
There are moments of great societal import, transforming elections, cultural sea changes, all the stuff that dominates the national discourse. And then there are ground-level moments like this, a friend walking away with a broken heart. It was a hard way to be reminded which matters more.