It’s 12:59 p.m. at the Jamiah Islamic Center in Woodhaven, Queens. A powerful voice starts to sing a typical, monotonic Muslim prayer. The voice’s owner is a thin old man wearing a white hat, white shirts, and brown pants rolled up – and no shoes, of course.
The timing of the prayer was not picked by chance. The old man meant to start singing in that exact moment: it’s the minute today’s Friday prayer should start in New York City. The Friday prayer replaces the Dhur (midday) prayer performed in the other six days of the week, and both begin as soon as the sun passes its zenith. Luckily, we can look up the exact prayer times in the Web, as Aug. 22 is a really cloudy day.
The Friday prayer is the one when the Muslims are supposed to gather to pray. But not many people were there to hear the old man sing. At that moment there were more wall fans—nine—than people in the fully carpet-covered room. This would change quickly.
One by one they arrived: men of various ages (8 to 80), skin tones (always a shade of tan), beard lengths (goatees were favored), and styles of clothes (from typical white robes to bright red Nikes). The red Nikes were one of dozens of pairs of shoes left in shelves beside the entrance through 91st Avenue—a small door that was kept open until 1:30 p.m. with the help of a chair. When the door was closed, a few other dozens of pairs of shoes were left outside.
Most of the men, upon entry, would go straight to the bathroom, where they carefully washed their hands and feet, drying them over a couple of towels left outside the bathroom door. Opposite the bathroom door there was the chair where the imam, a middle-aged man with a long black beard and wearing a turban, was seated. The imam talked for some thirty minutes, apparently mixing words of advice with melodically pronounced prayers.
Just before 2 p.m., in a now packed room, the main point of the Friday prayer arrived. Each man managed to stand elbow to elbow with his neighbor, facing Woodhaven Boulevard (in the direction of Mecca), and leaving enough space between rows so that each worshipper could bow down and recite three times: “Subhana rabbiyal adheem.” (Glory to my Lord, the Exalted!)