May 10, 2012 - albanyia    3 Comments

Memories of early Muslims in Albany, NY — part 1

Today was an extremely nice day. The kind that heralds the beginning of Summer after a usually cold and horrible winter. Alhamdulillah though, this year our winter was very mild but after a week of Indian summer in the middle of February the weather went back to cold until just recently.

My Dad and I sat out on the porch for awhile drinking our tea and talking about this and that. The topic of our ancestors came up as my uncle just sent us a family tree from India that went back 10 generations from my great grandfather! The first person is listed as “Shaikh Salahuddin”, who was probably the first person in our family to convert to Islam in India.

I was saying how I wish we could have known who he was and his story. Then somehow we talked about this and that and my Dad said his father had actually owned a gold coin from the Uthmani era and a very old hand-written illuminated Quran. He had seen these things with his own eyes as a teenager and wrote to his family from Australia (where he went for his PhD) to keep these items safe as they were very valuable. But somehow no one can find them now. Either it was hidden somewhere, someone took them or they were just lost over time either before or after his father died.

So then I told my Dad he should write down his history and how he came to America and about the early Muslims in this area. Then he told me ‘well this is a job of a blogger and ur old too now, u can write about ur memories!’ D’oh! So very true.

We now have so many Mosques in this area and when I go to some events I know less than half the people. I often wonder who everyone is. This is just so unheard of. When I was growing up every Muslim knew every Muslim by name…

So here is the first in what I hope is a series of posts on the early Muslims of Albany, NY:
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One of my very first memories in America is our father taking us to the Mosque for the first time. This would be the original Islamic Center of the Capital District in Colonie. Back then it was a little white stucco structure that looked a little like a house from the outside. There was a little rectangular parking lot out front and a long area of lawn on the side. (Yup that’s it, no school, no huge community center, no winding wrap-around parking lot, no playgrounds, nothin!) (and we loved it.) Inside there was a downstairs basement area that was carpeted and had ping pong tables. Mid level upstairs there were 3 rooms, 2 of which were used as classrooms and one as an office, and a corner shoe area and then the upstairs big Musallah area. Over time the downstairs basement area would come to have these big office type of partitions so they could create three or four large classrooms (including one under the stairs!) and also have half that as an area to have community dinners.

The Mosque was made up of every ethnicty. There were Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians, Turkish, Cambodians, Afghanis, African-Americans etc etc. This was the the only Mosque of the area (except for maybe a musallah in Troy near RPI) and everyone from the Troy, Schenectady, Albany area as far north as Lake George and as far south as the Catskills would come there.

My teachers were mostly Arab mothers like Sister Sukina, Sister Hoda, Sister Samia, Sister Fatima, Sister Suzanne and some brothers who were there as phD students like the principal Brother Djafer, Brother Abdul Nasser, Brother Errol and my Dad and later on Brother Sohail. The first Imam I can remember was Br. Shawki and there was some kind of controversy about him and later on an Egyptian Imam straight from Egypt who didn’t speak any English and then we had Shaikh Mokhtar who was a phD student from Syracuse/turned Imam.

Anyway during these early years in the 80s we would go to the Mosque every Friday night and Sunday afternoon. The adults would have some kind of lecture upstairs and we’d have our classes. Our Dad was pretty strict and we weren’t allowed to skip Mosque for any reason!! Even if we had missed school that day we were usually fine enough to go to Mosque lol. I developed a ton of friendships in my class and was especially close to a group of 5 girls. We were extreme best friends but the oddest thing is we never saw each other except at the Mosque on the weekends! Occasionally they had a ‘Youth Day’ on a Saturday where people came and just played sports on the lawn. One Saturday night every month they had a ‘community dinner’, where absolutely everyone would come and we’d all eat downstairs on the long plastic tables with metal folding chairs.

The route to the Mosque was pretty regular. From Albany down Washington Ave to Washington Ave extension till we got to the big water tower, a right down to Central Ave and then all the way down Central Ave to the little turn at the Ethan Allen furniture shop. There was literally nothing once you got to the Suny campus. This is before all the new buildings on the right side including hotels and medical arts and the apartment building! they have there now. It was all just woods. Down Washington Ave extension there was literally nothing but swamp probably. This was even pre-Crossgates pre-Walmart era, even pre-office buildings era! I think the Italian American center was there but nothing else. Down that 155 road there was nothing until they built a Cracker Barrel type of country store thing that we found very expensive. And all along Central ave there were businesses going up and down and a number of car dealerships sprang up towards the end of Central ave, before the big cemetery and the turn for the Mosque. Where the Islamic school is now, across the street from the Mosque, was just woods. The school was an old dilapidated building and there was a long sort of building next to it (stables? old stores?) that I used to stare at and wonder what it had been.

Some of the mothers would drop off their kids at the Mosque and go to the mall that was nearby. At that time it existed as Mohawk Mall and had stores like Caldor’s. On the way back home my Dad first used to stop at Northway Mall which had a Sears type store called Montgomery Ward where he would buy stuff and we’d go into the mall to find our own fun. It used to be one long hall with small stores on either side. There was one dedicated store to stickers! Yup stickers of all kinds like scratch n sniff and water filled and rolls of various stuff and packaged strawberry shortcake stickers and whatever else. I’d usually go in there to look around while my older brother would have disappeared into the arcade towards the other end of the mall. This was definitely another era where our parents would just bring us to the mall and everyone would fan out on their own. It seems impossible now in the era of pedophiles and crazies. I completely panic when I don’t see my niece or nephews in Target for 5 minutes! Ahhh such was the 80s.

We also used to go to some grocery store every Sunday after Mosque. I think this was an A&P market and later a Price Chopper next door to the K-Mart at the corner of 155 and Central. We’d go around the entire store with the cart and our Dad allowed us to get only “one item” that we kids wanted. This could be a favorite cereal or a brick of cheese or something. Later on when I was a teenager we would go out to eat after Mosque and invariably this would be at the Taco Bell that sprang up in that new Price Chopper complex.

So next time more on what we did at the Mosque and growing up and maybe a scandalous secret or two about what us kids discovered beyond the forest! :) C u then!!

A few pics courtesy of Usama Chaudhry…