On Washington DC’s Hidden Islamic Trail

The interior courtyard of the mosque in Washington DC’s Islamic Center. (Shutterstock)
Updated 07 April 2019

On Washington DC’s Hidden Islamic Trail

  • The American capital has a long and storied Muslim history, if you dig deep enough

LONDON: The ‘David’-like physiology and ‘Nike’ wings were Greco-Roman, but his turban, beard and ‘semitic’ face, were unmistakably of the East. He sat majestically with one arm under his chin and his right foot atop a distilling retort.

“Those figures represent the building blocks of Western civilization. There’s Spain, England, the Middle Ages, even Islam is there for its contribution to science. Look, ‘Islam’ is written under the turbaned man.”

The tour guide’s voice broke my meditative study of the Renaissance-style figures high up on the dome of the Thomas Jefferson building, inside Washington DC’s Library of Congress.

Painted in the 1890s by Edward Homeland Blashfield, “The Evolution of Civilization” suggests Islam played a far greater role in the development of America than popular US history would have you believe.

This fact is further reinforced by one of the library’s most prized possessions, the Jefferson Qur’an — a two-volume 18th-century leatherbound English translation of Islam’s holiest text that once belonged to the American founding father and third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Along with the library's dome, “The Qu’ran,” by George Sale, is part of a series of clues alluding to Islam’s relationship with the US, scattered across Washington DC.

Around the corner, in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, an exhibit honors the man often hailed as ‘The Greatest’ American Muslim of all, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Northeast of this, on “Islamic Way” is a mosque linked to arguably America's second-most-famous Muslim, Malcolm X. The Masjid Muhammad, now a Sunni mosque, began life as the Nation of Islam Temple No.4, and was built using money personally raised by ‘Brother Malcolm’ before his conversion to Islam.

It is not the capital’s only famous mosque. On the opposite side of town, the Islamic Center offers a nod to historic Islamic art and architecture. The exterior of its mosque — built in 1949 — is modeled on classic north African, Fatimid architecture while, inside, the walls are decorated with blue Ottoman-style Iznik tiles and Qur’anic calligraphy.

Meanwhile, on the corner of 21st and Q NW is the Moroccan Embassy — one of the earliest established in the US, to acknowledge that the Muslim country was the first to recognize America’s independence in 1776.

But the true gem sits in an unfashionable neighborhood south of the River Anacostia. America’s Islamic Heritage Museum on Martin Luther King Jr Ave W is the result of one man's effort to unearth America's Muslim history.

“It all began when I discovered a West African ancestor on my father’s side called Clara Higgenbotham, born in 1783 and enslaved in Brunswick, Georgia,” recalled Amir Nashid Ali Muhammad Ibn West, the museum's founder. “She had a daughter called Amry Bakr — a familiar Muslim surname. Looking into their lives, I came across another Muslim slave born in West Africa, Salih Bilali, who lived nearby and managed 450 slaves for a John Couper.

“Bilali reportedly recited the shahadah on his deathbed, and his descendant, Robert Abbott, founded the Chicago Defender — one of America’s first black newspapers,” Amir continued. He went on to claim that America’s Muslim history goes all the way back to 1312, when West African Muslims from Mali landed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Amir also believes Muslims came to the Americas with Christopher Columbus.

“Columbus had two Muslim captains related to Sultan Abu Zayan Muhammad III of Morocco’s Marinid dynasty on his ship,” he said.

Evidence supporting his claims can be seen inside his modest museum. It includes slave ledgers, adverts for runaway Muslim slaves, and photos of ancient ‘Muslim’ tombstones, like the final resting place of ‘Mamohet’ (who died in 1735), which Amir found in Norwich, Connecticut.

The museum also has a copy of a painting of freed Muslim slave, Yarrow Mamout. The original, housed in Georgetown Public Library, was painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1819. Peale also painted US President George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Mamout was a devout Muslim versed in Arabic. After being freed he invested in the Columbia Bank and became a financier for white and black merchants. Peale noted that Mamout was buried at the bottom of his garden, where he prayed. Excavations are now underway at his former residency.

The move is a significant one, suggesting the US capital, like Amir, might finally be ready to embrace America’s forgotten Muslim heritage.


‘The Sky is Pink’: Priyanka Chopra disappoints, Zaira Wasim shines

Farhan Akhtar and Priyanka Chopra Jonas star in the film. (AFP)
Updated 13 October 2019

‘The Sky is Pink’: Priyanka Chopra disappoints, Zaira Wasim shines

CHENNAI: Director Shonali Bose may well be termed the “mistress of misery.” Her characters, invariably women, have been suffering souls.

Whether it be in “Amu,” set in the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, or “Margarita with a Straw” and its story of a teenager with cerebral palsy, Bose’s protagonists have been largely unhappy.

Her latest feature, “The Sky is Pink” — unnecessarily long at 159 minutes — is based on the real-life tale of a girl who dies at an early age from complications arising out of an immune-deficiency illness. Aisha (Zaira Wasim) tells us not only her own sad story, but also that of her parents, Aditi (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Niren (Farhan Akhtar).

Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Farhan Akhtar attended "The Sky Is Pink" premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. (AFP)

When Aditi falls pregnant, she has already lost a child to the disease, but religious compulsion pushes her to go ahead. Predictably, the baby girl, Aisha, develops the same problem. The parents, who live in New Delhi, rush her to London. Since they cannot afford the treatment, which involves a bone-marrow transplant, Niren broadcasts a plea from a radio station that raises a large amount of money.

But years later, the bubbly Aisha falls seriously ill, and the effect of her decline on her brother, Ishan (Rohit Saraf), and her parents makes up rest of the plot.

“The Sky is Pink” essentially explores the way marriages fall apart after a child gets sick. But Bose weaves into this storyline several distracting features, including Ishan’s budding love affair, which is rocked every time there is crisis in Aisha's life.

Bose’s film could be compared to Mehdi M. Barsaoui’s debut, “A Son.” Set in Tunisia in 2011 after the “Jasmine Revolution,” it also deals with a couple’s turmoil after their son is shot and wounded by a sniper. Barsaoui intelligently scripts how the couple crack under the pressure and their relationship begins to totter. There is not a single scene that is at odds with the plot.

In contrast, “The Sky is Pink” digresses into marital jealousy and a string of dramatically charged moments, diluting the core theme.

Akhtar, who is an excellent actor, seems out of sorts in this setting, while Chopra Jonas fails to convey a mother’s emotional pain and seems far too dolled up to adequately portray a character in torment. In fact, the only high point is the fine acting by Wasim.