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Mixing Muslim tradition with the American Dream in Jamaica, Queens

What does the American Dream mean to the immigrant Muslims, who are arriving to New York City in ever greater numbers? On Memorial Day, Tayabali reflected on this question in a small hall on Springfield Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens. He and 200 other Shia Muslims were meeting to remember Syedna Qutubuddin Shaheed, who died a martyr in 1648 AD.

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Dressed in a long white tunic, black house slippers with straps across the width of his feet, and a white spotless embroidered cap that fitted his south Asian sun-kissed head perfectly, Tayabali proudly remarked that he's a typical American. So, he laughed when asked why he had come to America.

Listening to Ismaili history

“For the American Dream,” he answered. What does the American Dream mean to the immigrant Muslims, who are arriving in the city in ever greater numbers? Last May, Tayabali reflected on this question in a small hall on Springfield Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens. He and 200 others were meeting to remember Syedna Qutubuddin Shaheed, who died a martyr in 1648 AD.

Most of the Muslims in attendance were from India, Africa and the Middle East. They belong to the second largest Shia Muslim branch, the Ismaili. Qutubuddin Shaheed was a leader to the Ismailis, who believe he was killed for refusing to submit to a tyrannical leader of the Sunni Muslims in India.

There are many Ismailis in Iran and Pakistan, and significant concentrations in the India, Africa, and many parts of the Middle East. According to scholar Farhad Daftary, in A Short History of the Ismailis, the latest trends among Ismailis is emigration to North America and Europe.

Memorial Day was a singularly appropriate day for Tayabali and his fellow Shiites to mix their Muslim tradition of remembering a martyrdom, cultural traditions of festivity, and American freedoms. His  Shia Muslim community were making the America Dream come true by their simple majlis event (majlis, in Arabic, means “a place of sitting and gathering”). They appreciated their freedom of religious assembly, a right that they share with all Americans.

They started early in the day to prepare their memorial fest.

Tayabali’s wife Radiya helped to prepare the food. She stirred a huge pot of lentils and meat with a three-foot wooden paddle. Cooking mostly from memory, she tossed in brightly colored spices – mustard seed, cumin seed, cinnamon, turmeric - without measurement. It is a way she helps to build a new life for Shiites in the United States.

“It’s not a business,” she pointed out. “It’s community service.” Everybody works together for each other.  In particular the parents like Tayabali and Radiya work for their children to realize the American Dream of a good education.

Although natives of Tanzania with grandparents from India, Tayabali, his wife and three sons decided  to come to America in 2002. They specifically chose New York for the schools, and the three sons now go to Queens College.

The long-term opportunities of education in America outweighed their immediate problems. Further, the benefits of American capitalism and modern science and medicine are widely admired in their homeland.

The face of Zainab, Tayabali’s sister-in-law, lite up around her red-rimmed glasses when she talked about America.

As she cut the green beans into precise one-inch pieces, she observed that in Tanzania one person working alone cannot survive. But here in America, her husband alone provides for the family by working at Duane Reade while their sons are in school. “I wasn’t scared,” she reflected about her emigration. She looked forward to the educational opportunities, but she noted that schools were not the only reason immigrants have an American Dream.

They hope to have access to America’s modern medicine. Indeed, Zainab wished she had come to America earlier while her son, Adnen, was still alive. American technology might have saved his life. Instead, poor medicine in Tanzania ended it.

With a tinge of sadness in her eyes, her hands stopped cutting. “I can never forget him,” she said. Over the final dish in their memorial meal, Muslim tradition allows prayers that honor the deceased. On Memorial Day, Zainab honored the freedom of her son’s soul.

The Shiites on Springfield Boulevard in Queens appreciated that they also can celebrate their freedom from religious persecution and recognize that it is a right to be supported for other religions in America. Pausing to greet a woman after the service, Mariya Zakiuddin reflected, “We all have our freedoms, I have my rights and respect the rights of others.” This right is all the more meaningful to the Shiites with the tenth anniversary of 911 looming in September.

“Things became more difficult after 9/11,” observed one of the Shiite leaders. “People don’t realize that not all of us are terrorists.”

Tayabali pointed out that suffering from terrorism is something he shares with Americans. He had friends injured in the 1998 attack on the American embassy in Nariobi.

“The first place we visited was Ground Zero. We went to remember the people who died,” he said. Tayabali's actions also mark his desire to identify with the American story. Their homage to the Shia Muslim traditions on Memorial Day is their affirmation of American Dream of freedom and hope for the future.

[See A Journey's series on Muslims in NYC]


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  • good piece.

  • Thank you for the informative article. It was interesting to read about the Ismaili branch of Shi'a religion. I imagine that for these Muslims, the non-establishment of religion in the US will be valued in the same way that Christians of various traditions do.

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