The Two Imams

We went toe-to-toe about the afterlife

The art shows a picture frame with a neon yellow pane, inside of which there is a wrought iron fence.
Zoe Koke, Dream. 2019, inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

When Imam Salim returned to New York from his studies in Saudi, he did so with plans to revive his late uncle’s mosque in Staten Island, which he himself had lived above from the age of 8 to 18, after his parents were found under the weight of an upturned lorry in New Karachi. Occident Street Mosque, our bricky low-rise, lay slumped at the end of a houseless strip of concrete that was marked at irregular intervals by linden trees and at regular intervals by the wavery tide pools of streetlights. The mosque’s revival required his dividing the prayer hall and constructing a side for our Muslim sisters. The second floor’s bare kitchen was refurbished, the living room eventually bedecked by an ugly rug, coffee and dining tables, and a corpulent TV set. Up the next flight of semi-splintered stairs, two doors became three, each opening onto a bedroom. One was his, the second was ours, and the third, with the widest windows and most generous square footage, was kept open in the event someone was unsettled and in need of a roof. Inside Imam Salim’s room was an office, which he kept locked.

Cultivating the backyard, Imam Salim planted a family of acacias, a choice made for unknown reasons. He also rooted more regionally appropriate selectionsphlox, silver grass, loosestrife, burning bushbut it was the acacias he doted on. His knees left grooves in their topsoil. “I hope you understand,” I heard him say to them once. His behavior, with the plants and generally, was often bizarre. If my brothers and I ever asked about the emotionally fraught gardening, he would respond with a barrage of religious trivia. Did we know, he often said, that the very first gods were born beneath an acacia’s sheltering bough in Heliopolis? Did we know about Osiris, or about the Phoenician god Tammuz, or about Marduk, or about a lesser-known but equally terrible god, Vitzliputzli, once venerated by the Aztecs in Mexico? Did we know it was with acacia wood that Yahweh asked Moses to fabricate the Ark of the Covenant? We didn’t know anything, did we? It doesn’t seem quite so bizarre now, that he would answer our questions with stranger questions, but at the time we thought him somewhat demented.

At the mouth of Occident Street was Coolidge. The neighborhood. The Coolidge Houses. Poverty’s resultant grace. Saintly bodega owners, oumas, lolas, umms, tías, and so on and so forth. Imam Salim would often say, “Look how flexible they become when trying to co-opt our depravities. When the state steals our capacity for vilenessour humanity goes with it.” Coolidge wasn’t mythic, or magic, only differently naked. Our shadows lengthened across its courtyards, our reflections aged in the spotty windows of Crown Fried Chickens and disappointing Sri Lankan restaurants. We learned to tightrope the curb of its narrow streets.

Being positioned at the grooved tip of New York’s most disregarded borough made the neighborhood’s people a little wild, I thinkas if it gave them permission for their excesses. Here, the realization that the other end of your leash was tied to a neighbor’s neck came early. You couldn’t simply hop on the 5 train and evanesce; to escape Coolidge you had to skiff part of an ocean. That ferry ride is what kept most people from seriously leaving. For all the talk about the sweet mystery of the sea, there were those whom it yanked into singular anxiety. Not because they couldn’t swim, or were afraid to swim, not because the world knows more about various nebulae than it does about the abyssal plain. An immigrant often looks at the shiny-skinned sea and remembers, or feels their parents remembering, how they once split its glittering with a boat’s stem or flew over its vast navy from a great height. But we had no one to remember through, and as such, when the time came, we could leave with less difficulty than most.

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