Cloudy, With a Chance of Snow

An Afternoon at the Nation of Islam

/ by Arwa Elabd

‘Do you have the slightest idea which perspectives a young black man could have here?’ He holds my gaze; and it reveals that there is no way I could know. ‘Black, poor and barely with access to education – this is our reality here. A lot of it ends – and starts – in violence. Our reality is not beautiful. It’s hard’. I am looking for words to say, to give him an answer he is not expecting; but all I am capable of in this moment is trying to understand his anger and resentment; and I understand it. ‘It is like a vicious circle. Even if you want to break out of it, it can cost you your life. This is why the kids here, especially the young boys, need a base that they trust. And this is our role’.

 

For the long weekend, I decide to travel to Chicago, which is a four-hour bus trip from Bowling Green. I am very excited because it is the first time I will be in a big city since I left Vienna. As I walk in The Windy City, I enjoy the November snowflakes blowing in my face. My camera captures the energy bouncing off the skyscrapers. Their height seems endless. I can see the prosperity of the city on every building, on every corner and on every person. I move in circles inside the Chicago Loop. I feel safe downtown. There is nothing special to see on the West Side. ‘Make sure to avoid the South Side’. It is too dangerous there, I have been told. But I rarely stick to the rules. I found out that the headquarters of the Nation of Islam, the Maryam Mosque, is located on the South Side of Chicago. In this case, curiosity trumps reason; I am on my way.

 

Sitting in a taxi, I am observing the area changing. The skyscrapers are disappearing from my field of view into the distance and are replaced by lower buildings. Along Hyde Park they give off elegance and attract all attention of curious eyes and camera lenses. But this image changes quickly again as though passing an invisible partition, entering an area of decay. Though it is densely populated, an emptiness hits me that I can feel by the run-down facades of the houses and by the sparse nature that surrounds them. While not different from Downtown, combined with the emotionless atmosphere, it seems repugnant to me. Even the trees exude a feeling of poverty. They seem dried out even as a shower of rain passes over the city.

 

Stepping out of the car, I notice how muddy the fresh snow has become. I take a walk around the building. It seems out of place with its golden dome and light brown colour. The snow adds a sparkle to it, making it shine like a castle. The dark brown gate gives it a royal touch. When I attempt to enter, the door seems locked. Puzzled, I knock three times, hoping someone is inside. A young man opens the gate and I explain to him that I look for a place to pray. He allows me to enter.

 

The interior of the building differs from a church only by the way of its simple Islamic ornaments. There are no magnificent symbols. The first room I enter is reserved for sermons on Sunday mornings. To perform the prayers, I have to go one floor lower to a sparsely equipped room that reminds me of many mosques I have seen around the world. Arabic letters in dark colours decorate the bright walls of the room, which give me a sense of familiarity, a sense of home.

As soon as I finish my prayers, I see a young man whom I approach curiously. He holds packages of books in his hands that I would love to inspect, but he forbids it because they are only accessible to members of the Nation, he tells me. I respect his answer and introduce myself. When I realize that he is not turning down the conversation, I ask him which role he is playing in this mosque, this organization, this community. He tells me he is not only a warden but also a teacher, a mentor, a friend.

 

I tell him that I have read a lot about the Nation of Islam and wonder if the things I read are true.

My knowledge of African-Americans – ‘You don’t have to say African-American’, he corrects me, ‘we are Black. Say Black Americans’. I want to know why Black Americans are asking for separation, why they demand their own schools, universities and even ask for their own state within the United States. He does not look surprised, does not struggle for words: ‘That’s true. This is what we demand. As long as we are only treated as the negroes and our lives don’t matter as much as the lives of white people, we do not only want but we need our own legal system’. I am trying to understand. ‘We were brought here as slaves and, to this day, black people are not treated as human beings’. I feel the anger and resentment in every word he says, but I cannot fathom the struggle. Not that I have not experienced racism myself. But Austria is different.

‘How did you become part of the Nation of Islam’? I ask him. His story is akin to that of a lot of other young black men. When he was in prison at the age of 21, he found his new religion. ‘I was inspired by their discipline and the sense of community’, he tells me, while his eyes light up and his lips form a warm smile. ‘Every day an Imam took care of us, who taught us a lot about Islam. I became a Muslim during my time inside because I knew I will not be alone on the outside’. The support he received inside made him apply for a job at the headquarters in the Maryam Mosque when he left. He has been working there ever since. He was embraced by his brothers and sisters and his life started to revolve around the organization. Here he found his family and his friends, and here he will be able to pursue a future, far away from the violence on the streets. These are people who do not judge him by his past.

 

It is a typical story: a young man is not able to survive on the South Side of Chicago without being part of the violence. He becomes a target of police brutality and if he is lucky, he will be sent to prison where he has to complete his sentence. During this time, the Nation of Islam finds its way to them. They give the incarcerated many reasons to convert, support behind bars, a set of principles that help them lead a pious life; and the prospect of finding a community outside. Here they do not have to prove themselves. Especially not to white people.

 

Malcolm X also found his affiliation to the Nation of Islam during his time in prison. He was intrigued by Black Nationalism and was taught to believe that the black man would be better off without the white man. He was made the spokesperson of the Nation to spread their message: You cannot trust the white man. Only in a separate state within America, blacks can finally find the solutions to all their problems.

 

‘Sister, Islam is the religion of our ancestors. The blacks in America should finally acknowledge that we are the God’s chosen people’. I have a suspicion that this has little to do with the ‘religion of the ancestors’. It seems to me that they needed an alternative to the religion of the oppressors. In his latest book, American Islamophobia, Khaled Beydoun explains that around 600,000 to 1.2 million Muslims were brought to the United States as slaves. But during slavery Christianity was forced upon those enslaved, in order to remove any traces of culture and religion from Africa. Darryl confirms my suspicion when he says that black people cannot identify with the religion of their oppressors anymore. They could not believe in a God who was believed to be white, has blue eyes and blond hair. God cannot look like the oppressors. ‘Do you have white friends?’ He negates my question. Although I already know the answer to my next question, I ask still innocently what he would do, if he fell in love with a white woman. ‘You cannot control your feelings, if this happens’. I say. The way his face changes indicates that he would never let it come this far: ‘My interaction with white people is very limited, sister. They are not doing us any good. They are like the devil’, he says in a quiet but determined voice. ‘Do you really believe that all white people are devils’? I interrupt him. ‘The white man is the greatest murder and kidnapper on earth. Think of all the countries in Africa, of many countries in Asia or in South America. Can you tell me where the white man went and created peace and harmony’? Silence. I cannot contradict him, although I do not agree.

 

‘Being a Black American is difficult. We did not ask to come here. We were forced to come here. And now? We have no place to go back and they don’t even want us here anymore. Why should we submit to their laws and rules if we are excluded in the first place’?

 

While Darryl continues to talk, I wonder if he was ever taught why Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam. After eight years, his ‘superstar status’ caused a lot of trouble and jealousy among the members. But the main reason why he left was his disappointment about his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, who lived a different life from what he was preaching. After leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964, he decided to ‘return’ to Sunni Islam and complete the last of the five pillars of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. In a letter to his wife, Betty Shabbaz, he wrote about his spiritual rebirth: ‘You may be shocked by these words, but I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and prayed to the same God with fellow Muslims whose eyes were blue, whose hair was blond and whose skin was the whitest of whites. And we are brothers truly; people of all colours and races believing in one God and one humanity. Once before, in prison, the truth came and blinded me’. My mind keeps going between this thought and a verse from the Quran that says: ‘We made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another’. Splitting with the Nation, Malcom X changed his name again, calling himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

I relate to every word Brother Darryl tells me. I understand that being an African American is different. Their ancestors were dragged here. They survived slavery, the supremacy of the white man, segregation, among many other injustices that still have their influences today. But my religion teaches me to treat others the way I am expected to be treated – with compassion, love and respect. Neither the Quran nor the Prophet mention that one’s skin colour is preferred over another. I have always been taught that no Arab is superior to a non-Arab and a white person is not better than a black person. The message of Islam is that a person will not be judged by race or colour but by their righteousness. The Quran does not address one ethnicity but speaks to mankind. In Surat Al-Rum there is a verse that says: ‘And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours’.

 

Towards the end of the conversation Darryl allows me to glance at one book. I have to choose carefully. They cover a wide range of topics, agriculture, health, justice, education and even the arts, culture, science and technology. My decision falls on the topic of health and the right diet. ‘Everything that is written inside was recommended by the Most Honourable Minister Elijah Muhammad’, he says in a proud tone, as if he wants to prove to me that I am reading the work of a sage. As I leaf through the pages, he tells me about an upcoming event about Urban Gardening. He explains its importance; as long as they do not own land, they won’t be a productive people: ‘The Most Honourable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that no people can be free with their mouth in the kitchen of another, particularly in the kitchen of former slave masters and their children. This is why we stick to the rules given to us’.

 

In this moment, I push everything he says aside and ask him: ‘So, are you telling me that the lifestyle of Elijah Muhammad is more important than the Prophet’s?’

 

He seems confused about my question.

 

I ask again: ‘Is Elijah Muhammad more important than the Prophet Mohamed?’ and I point at the book that I am holding in my hand. He still cannot answer my question.

 

‘I want to know, if the Prophet Mohamed has any significance for you. As soon as you accept Islam as your religion, you say the Shahada, the creed, which means that you declare that you believe that there is no god, but one God and that the prophet Mohamed is his messenger. But if I understand you correctly you don’t believe that the prophet is the messenger, but Elijah Muhammad’.

 

Brother Darryl avoids my gaze. I can see him frown. I cannot tell what effect my words have on him. Is he offended, or does he agree?

 

‘That’s a good question’, he admits.

 

While I am about to leave the mosque, two men try to enter to perform their prayers. The guard sends them back: ‘We have a private event. There is no access to the public currently’.

 

My eyes follow the men as they walk away, leaving footprints in the fresh snow. The bright white blinds me for a moment. As I step through the dark-brown gate I realize why he didn’t let them in.

....
Arwa Elabd

was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. When she is not teaching German and Spanish in a middle school or high school classroom, she is busy traveling and exploring the world, including living in other countries like Spain and the United States. In 2017/2018 she received a Fulbright scholarship and lived in Ohio, where she had the opportunity to explore the differences between what it means to be a Muslim in Austria and the United States.