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The muscular arms of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are one force reshaping West Philadelphia; a humble church and old movie theater on 43rd and 45th streets — both repurposed into mosques — are another. Over the past 20 years, a long rectangular strip heading a dozen blocks west from 42nd Street and bounded by Walnut and Market has grown into the city's biggest and most diverse Muslim community.
During the second week of Ramadan, nighttime sidewalks are booming with life: men in long, flowing robes (jallabiyyas) and cylindric kufi hats alongside women in hijabs of various colors and patterns. Restaurants and mosques alike are open late this month as Muslims heralding from all parts of the world gather at sunset to break their daylong fast and pray. This neighborhood is where a world of Islam all comes together: Sudan, Niger, Mali, Egypt, Lebanon, Ghana, Bangladesh and, of course, West Philly itself.
At the heart of this community are two mosques, which serve as a kind of binary solar system around which a small world of Philadelphia Muslims turn.
The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (AICP) is the mosque directly across the street from Manakeesh and Saad's Lebanese restaurants, at 45th and Chestnut.
AICP calls itself "a voice of moderation" and speaks out against Wahhabism, a severely strict form of Islam that the government of Saudi Arabia pays to export worldwide. AICP is also a global movement and constitutes a significant political force in Lebanon. Extremists condemn their work, which they describe as "striving to rid the Muslim community of the vile innovations and prevailing deviations — the proponents of which call for terrorism and violence."
One of its imams, who also has a Ph.D. in physics, is Ali Ghazzawi, who describes his 500-odd-person congregation as "not too liberal" (breaking what he sees to be Islamic rules to make others happy) and not "so strict that their lives and everyone else's are miserable."
Men and women sit together under the mosque's large dome during services — a stark contrast to more conservative mosques, where men and women are separated. On a recent night, City Paper visited the mosque in time for the Ramadan ritual evening fast-breaking meal called iftar. People ran up and down the steps to prepare the food, while others gathered in the sanctuary for a lesson.
"Did you come to experience our mayhem?" asks smiling building manager Linda Hauber.
Men pepper the imam with questions about Islam. Children roll around on the rug, and younger ones tug at their mothers' clothes; another, somewhere, shines a laser pointer against the mosque wall — until, finally, it's almost time to eat.
Men and women down water and dates — a kind of pre-break-fast — and then the call to prayer: Men assemble in rows up front, women in rows behind. Two little boys, young enough to not have to pray, try to pick one another's fathers out of the lines. "What shirt do he have?" A man running late awkwardly navigates past a large green purse on the rug as he rushes to pray.
Things were a lot quieter before the mosque's 1993 founding, says Ghazzawi. "We would take turns and pray in people's houses," he says, recalling when his group found the abandoned Methodist Church on Walnut Street, a building with an architectural style that looked remarkably Islamic.
"When we came, it was a dangerous neighborhood," he says. "A lot of drug dealers. When we opened it, the neighborhood welcomed us because we're here most of the time. I'm an unofficial community watch."
Since then it's become a spiritual home for Muslims who have arrived here from all over the world — including a large number of African-American converts to Islam. Amin, an African-American Muslim, suggests that before his conversion he may have played a part in making the neighborhood a dangerous one.
"I'm a street guy. Islam softened my heart," he says, and then widens his smile. "It wasn't always soft."
AICP has also become an anchor for a growing business district catering to its congregants. Wissam Chatila — the Temple doctor is another well-educated Lebanese close to AICP — owns Manakeesh, which opened in January across the street from his friend Saad's popular restaurant. (Manakeesh opens at sunset during Ramadan and stays open late, while Saad closes up shop and heads back to the Mediterranean.)
Asked if the neighborhood is primarily Sunni Muslim, Chatila laughs:"I like that. As if we're back home. I still think of it as an American neighborhood."
Lebanon's violently sectarian politics are far away, but the post-9/11 era brought heightened scrutiny —and hostility — to American Muslims. AICP stands "in stark contrast to what is [often] pictured about Islam," says Chatila, but "because of the Islamophobia out there, we are being defined. And the wrong people are defining us."
Last year, the more conservative Masjid al-Jamia mosque down the street at 43rd and Walnut was protested by Christian evangelists.
"We don't bother anybody. They should not bother us," says Mohammed Mahsin Khan, a member of Masjid al-Jamia's board. "Not nice."
Kahn, a 39-year-old Bangladeshi, had to drive to New Jersey or the Northeast to pray before 1990, when that mosque was founded in a large pre-war movie theater. Across the way sits the tiny building housing a travel agency, barber shop and the overflowing 24-hour Makkah Market (owned by a mosque member), which at night draws a steady stream of cab drivers, hungry or just tired.
This more conservative mosque's population is a little different — though not less diverse — than AICP's: more South Asians and fewer Middle Easterners. The more obvious difference is religious. Men and women pray separated by a partition.