On Washington DC’s Hidden Islamic Trail

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

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 Saudi startup that's taking a creative approach to humanitarian work

Updated 02 December 2020

The Saudi startup that's taking a creative approach to humanitarian work

The Saudi startup that's taking a creative approach to humanitarian work
  • Bab Boutique is helping refugees one stitch at a time

JEDDAH: Women refugees and others facing hardship on the margins are developing their creative talents with the help of a Saudi fashion startup.

Bab Boutique was established in 2016 to give marginalized communities the space and resources to invest in their creativity, and to encourage female refugees and others to celebrate their identity and culture.

The boutique describes itself as a “platform to celebrate stories of survival, striving and invisible success through handcrafted pieces created with care and love.”

Bab Boutique was initially set up by Rafah Sahab, Asma Aljifri, Hessa Alrubian, Mariam Alrubian and Fajer Burhamah as a therapeutic activity to support and help Syrian women who had fled their war-torn homeland.

Sahab, a psychotherapist, said that the boutique’s founders were driven by the belief that mental health is just as important as physical well-being.

“The plan was to provide traditional one-to-one therapy sessions during my visits to refugee camps or by securing funds for local therapists in hosting communities like Lebanon and Jordan,” said Sahab.

However, after a few visits, Sahab realized that many refugees were looking for a job, not mental health support.

“I was humbled by their grit and determination to find ways to provide for their children,” she said. “So we joined with local partners to give them a chance to express their creativity.”

Sahab decided to replace the therapy sessions with handicraft work since it was clear that lack of employment was affecting the refugees’ sense of dignity and self-respect.

In collaboration with the Thekra Organization in Jordan, Bab launched its first collection, “Stories of Syria,” which featured hand-embroidered bags in different sizes that celebrated aspects of Syrian culture, including weddings, and the wheat and olive harvests.

“We asked the refugees what we could learn from Syrian culture, and the women began sharing stories that they loved, and these were converted into drawings which the women then embroidered,” said Sahab.

“We took care of selling the collection in the GCC market.”

The market for Bab Boutique’s hand-embroidered products is bigger than many might think, and includes devotees of slow fashion, sustainability, handicraft and environmentally friendly products.

As their efforts began to bear fruit, the boutique’s co-founders discovered that far from being helpers and the refugees victims, the relationship was more cooperative, educational and insightful for both parties.

“We learned that these people have a lot that they can teach us; they have culture, art and creativity that we can benefit from,” said Sahab.

“They are not just refugees, they are people with dreams, potential, capacity, ideas and skills, as well as pain and disappointments. They’re just normal human beings.”

Sahab said that her work with refugees has taught her that “inside every one of us there is a divine power; there is flexibility, and the ability to be creative and overcome hardship.”

In collaboration with Jeddah-based artist Doa Bugis, Bab Boutique recently introduced “Migrating Birds,” a new collection of finely embroidered bags by Syrian refugees in Lebanon based on art pieces created by Bugis, whose works focus on exploring grief, loss, migration and hybrid identities.

“I have been an admirer of Bab for years. The Stories of Syria collection caught my eye and have drawn me into Bab’s own narrative, values and ethics,” said Bugis. “Knowing what they stand for, I said yes without giving it a second thought.

“Migrating Birds has been brewing in my head for years. I’ve always been interested in hybrid identities and spent about six years researching the subject,” Doa Bugis told Arab News.

“One of the main factors behind mixed identities is migration. It has been a phenomenon rooted in history. People have always relocated for better jobs, opportunities and living conditions. Whether the reasons were religious, economical or educational, uprooting yourself and your family is not an easy journey.”

Bugis sketched this narrative with words and then translated it visually. After many attempts she finally created an eye-catching miniature painting that combined Islamic art and calligraphy.

The finely embroidered bags feature images of birds, and phrases such as “In migration, there is loss and existence.”

Bab now hopes refugees can be valued for the cultural richness they bring with them.

“We want to change the fact that money and property is the judge for someone’s richness. You can be financially poor, but rich in culture and art; we want to make this shift,” Sahab said.

She said that the startup hopes to foster a new approach to humanitarian work that will give people the capacity to build for themselves and sustain their lives.

Bab plans to continue working with refugees on special lines and collections, but is also working on building communities both inside and outside the Kingdom.

“We believe that Bab is an imperfect project, an ever-evolving process of trial and error,” said Sahab.

“We have a growth mindset. We try to have patience and work slowly against societal and business industry expectations.”
 
Although social entrepreneurship is a new concept in the Saudi market, Sahab is optimistic about the future.

“Social businesses were not popular in the past. However, recently new regulations were set to support them. I expect a better future for social startups and social entrepreneurship.”  

Bab Boutique products are available online and at concept stores in Saudi Arabia. They can be found at https://babboutique.store and Instagram account @babboutique.me.