A Whole New World New York 2006 -
It's 5 a.m. and I land on the scene in time to hear the first Arabic prayer of the day blasting through two loudspeakers perched on top of Masjid At-Taqwa mosque at 1266 Bedford Avenue, waking residents within a mile out of that sweet pre-dawn sleep. Those who aren't down with Islam roll over and fade back to black, while hundreds of Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Trinidad, Yemen, and West Africa who live and work on or close to the T-strip read the Koran and then head to the mosque to praise Allah.
By 10 a.m. the Muslims, decked out in traditional Islamic frocks, set up shop and breathe another day of life into this revitalized commercial paradise. The street vendors put out trays of silver jewelry, DVDs, batteries, cell phone accessories, and a variety of cheap knickknacks. The clothing merchants line the streets with an array of beautiful native garments as well as American gear. Many of the Islamic women, covered from head to toe, walk their children to school while others open up the strip's hair-weaving salons. Gypsy-cab drivers jump in their cars and begin working the neighborhood. I fly over to Star Perfumes and Gifts, 1237 Bedford Avenue, one of the many Pakistani-owned specialty stores, and the tantalizing blend of aromas escaping from the bottles of scented oils quickly lures me in. I order my usual Arabian sandalwood oil and a pack of coals to burn under it. Other patrons buy incense, candles, and special skin-care products.
My mini—Middle East is just what the deprogramming doctor ordered, because there's no hatred or violence. After decades of experiencing African American bloodshed, Fulton Street is much safer, and contrary to the Matrix's propaganda, it's not because of the rookie cops stationed on every corner. The increasing Muslim presence has quietly become a stabilizing force: No crackhead, drug dealer, or thug is stupid enough to fuck with the religious power emanating from the strip. Yet police brutality remains a tired neighborhood reality, so I rub the lamp and make Five-O disappear. They can't come back until they figure out that racial profiling is a human rights violation, not a crime-fighting tactic.
Many of the buildings on the T-strip are owned by Orthodox Jewish businessmen who drop in and out to check on the apartments and commercial spaces rented by the immigrants. It's ironic, but these ghetto streets could teach Arabs and Jews living in the real Middle East a lot about peace. There's no beef: Nobody's packing bombs or spitting hate. There's one problem, though: Some of the dwellings are broken-down and busted, so I turn them into the mesmerizing multicolored onion-shaped domes that appear in my Aladdin book. While I'm at it, I change the pothole-riddled, garbage-infested streets into desert sand and do away with the cars and SUVs. Everybody has to rock a camel.
The neighborhood is changing: Posh cafés and restaurants hoping to cash in on the regentrification boom are popping up like weeds. Yuppies walk quickly to and from the train station, avoiding eye contact with longtime residents who have never heard the word hipster but stare with skepticism. In my fantasy, the change is cool; it doesn't include replacing indigenous "culcha" with pop culture. People barely holding on from paycheck to paycheck won't be displaced by those who can afford obnoxiously high rent. Folks don't have to worry that the price of a meal will skyrocket to 30 bucks (plus a tip) when they only have five to spare. A cup of coffee won't jump from 50 cents to a "hip" $3, and best of all, poor souls will still be able to use their welfare debit cards at the corner store. Feel me?
The 24-hour halal restaurants that populate the T-strip provide a quality-of-life improvement: "No More Junk: Eat Healthy," vows one of the many awnings. The buffet-style selections are always freshly prepared, especially during the wee hours of the morning, when the cab drivers returning from late-night shifts are craving a hearty, healthy meal. Takeout is sold by the pound, and for five bucks you can walk away with a delicious three-course meal. Dining in is a pleasant treat for the culturally adventurous; there's no better way to get to know people than to break bread with them. Every restaurant has a television set on an Arabic channel, creating a homey vibe for the chatty Muslims, who discuss the latest Middle East crisis as they chow down. Taj fruit stand and Fouta Town meat market add to the halal theme for residents who prefer to do their own cooking. With healthy alternatives in place, I get even more jiggy with my powers and banish the three Chinese restaurants from the strip; they can't return until they promise to change that stale-ass oil they've been reusing for months to cook people's food. The new Popeye's is a goner too.
It's very common to see photos of small children and older men brandishing automatic weapons back home in the M.E. displayed through the fiberglass partitions of the corner stores that are run predominantly by natives of Yemen. That might scare the 60 percent of New Yorkers who fear another terrorist attack, but in the 'hood it doesn't mean shit. It's hard to fear folks when they're deeply entwined in your life cycle: "Give me a vanilla Dutch [a flavored blunt] and two stogies," says a guy in the store on the corner of Fulton and Franklin. "And hurry up, ya jihading mothafucka," he continues. "Shut the fuck up, you broke-ass nigga," replies the young "A-rab" behind the counter—in my fantasy he's dressed like Aladdin instead of 50 Cent. That would have been a head-severing exchange anywhere else, but in this city, where the rich keep getting richer and the poor just are, words are reduced to nothing in the humbling struggle to survive—the two men slap five and laugh. As I fly away I hear the Arab say, "later, my brotha," and the black dude reply, "Assalaam alaykum." At that moment my fantasy is complete.