Keeping the Home Fires Burning

How Immigrant Shopkeepers Teach Us to Act Naturally

The East Village has always provided a haven for devout Muslim shopkeepers, largely because of the Madina Masjid, a mosque, founded in 1976, that's located at the corner of First Avenue and East 11th Street. The blue minaret surmounted by the Muslim star and crescent has been the destination for lines of worshipers who approach from the north and south along First Avenue five times a day. On Wednesday, the mosque was ominously flanked by a pair of patrol cars, though the officers inside explained that they were there as a precautionary measure, and not in response to any particular threat. A zipper-type electronic sign was recently installed to broadcast religious slogans, but today the sign is dark. On a sheet of paper a note warns that the mosque will be closed until 5 p.m., and when I return at that time, instead of the usual lines, a single devout appears, deftly removes his shoes, and slips inside.

Many of the Muslim-identified businesses have been shut tight all day. Right next to the mosque, the Egyptian Sahara East is locked tight, while further down First Avenue, the halal Indonesian Borobodur Café hasn't been open since the previous afternoon. Most of the falafel stands are also closed. An exception is the strip of Indian restaurants along East 6th Street, mainly owned by Bangladeshi Muslims. But the shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and touts positioned along the street prove very difficult to interview. Understandably reticent to discuss their nationality or religion, they point me to the next restaurant in the row, saying, "They're Muslims in there." I finally gain an audience at Mitali East, the culinary anchor of the strip, where a conclave of waiters, cooks, owners, and busboys is proceeding deep inside the darkened restaurant. The only one who will consent to an interview is a young and well-spoken busboy with a slight fuzz on his upper lip, who doesn't want to give his name or have his picture taken. He observed police cars outside his own storefront mosque in Queens, but he says he was relieved, because he understood they were there to protect the mosque. As to any threat to the restaurants along 6th Street, he says, "No one knows we're Muslim, and if they do, they don't think we're from the Middle East. Those are the ones they're mad at."

Arif runs one of the piercing and tattoo stalls that have become fixtures on St. Marks Place. Late Wednesday afternoon he is carefully packing up his nose studs, navel rings, and tattoo needles in lengths of velvet and stowing them away. Though he doesn't want to discuss religion or nationality, he volunteers that he has never seen anything like the Trade Center disaster in his home country. I ask him if he is packing up early because he is afraid, and he grins wryly. "No, it's not that. It's just that no one has wanted to get pierced all day."

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