Written by Mailka Rushdan
I first discovered Aerosol Arabic while surfing the internet, browsing art related sites. An aspiring artist myself, I joined an Islamic Artist listserve, this is where I came to know of Mohammed Ali’s work. When I first saw Br. Mohammed’s work I was truly inspired. I remember the graffiti breakdance era in the USA and was in awe of how Br. Mohammed infused graffiti art with the art of Arabic Calligraphy and then took it to the streets – simply brilliant concept in Dawah!
When Br. Mohammed announced his USA Tour, Arts and Islam, I knew I had to find a way to bring him to New York and immediately started to pool my resources. Fortunately I work for the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA (ICNA Relief) and we launched a campaign to bring Br. Mohammed to our city, agreeing to co-sponsor 2 Murals, one in Chicago and one in New York. However, mid course, there was a tragic fire in the Bronx on March 7, 2007, where 9 Muslim children and a mother from Mali perished in the blaze. As a relief agency, ICNA Relief responded to the horrific tragedy and was working with the Magassa and Soumare families, assisting them in rebuilding their lives, an effort we have pledged to honor long-term.
When news of the terrible fire spread across the globe, Mohammed Ali was touched by such an awful loss that he asked if the Dawah Mural planned for New York could now become a Memorial Mural for the victims of the fire. From the start, we wanted to be sensitive to the family and sought their permission before any work began.
Br. Mohammed sent a sketch from England of what he proposed for the Mural, Mantia Magassa, the Sister who lost 5 of her children was the first to view his creation. She gazed upon the sketch for a few moments, which seemed much longer as my heart was feverously beating, wondering how this grieving mother from East Africa would respond to such a modern day art form. Sr. Mantia looked to me and said “Yes, yes, this is nice!” You should have seen the smiling faces of her surviving children, some still recovering from burns, the smell of smoke lingering in their hair, when they learned they would actually be able to help paint the Memorial Mural and use spray paint to boot!
Now, I have organized numerous community projects but none which touched me as much as the Bronx Mural. I’ve been privileged to work with many cultural groups, bringing people together from around the world however the work that took place on Mt Eden Street in the Bronx was truly exhilarating. Imagine a project which heals, a project which breaks down stereotypes and builds community. Now imagine you’re in the middle of the mix.
Inner city neighborhoods each have their own code of conduct, when Mohammed Ali arrived in the Bronx, he was stomping on territory that was not his own. We gathered the first day, a cold damp morning. The prayers from the day before had been answered, the rain was subsiding. Br. Mohammed begins to sketch a design on the wall, an odd sight for those who live in the area, considering graffiti is a felony in New York City. Making it even more bizarre, there are not only Muslim women in Hijab but a whole host of out of place looking individuals representing many different ethnicities, TV crews and photographers all gathered together, we really began to attract quite an audience.
Knowing the law of the streets, I knew we had to get the local community to buy into the project. This was a largely Latino and African American neighborhood in an urban environment. Here I was, an Irish American Muslim in Hijab, greeting people who were stopping, letting them know the Mural was being painted as a memorial for the Magassa and Soumare families, families the whole city had come to know and sympathize with. Strangers embraced the idea of a memorial and were touched by the fact Br. Mohammed, a stranger to them and the family would travel from the UK to paint a wall in the Bronx for a family he didn’t even know. Our biggest challenge was gaining the respect of the young people in the neighborhood without whom, the mural would be at risk of being tagged or destroyed. On the first day, I noticed a group of teens across the street looking from afar. I called them over asking if they wanted to help “Really, we can paint?” they ran across the street at least 15 deep.
Br. Mohammed did a wonderful job of slowing the crowd of youth and explained to them the concept behind the message “To Him we shall return”. He spoke of the phrase, not only being a reminder for Muslims but for all to reflect upon, especially for these young people living in such a hostile world. He told them how he mourned the loss of the 10 lives and him being compelled to come to the US to paint a mural for those who he called Brother and Sister, though he had never met them. This group of wannabe, gangsta teens was humbled by Br. Mohammed’s account and joined us in what was to become a mind altering experience.
*Br. Mohammed painted one of the teen’s skateboards, the teen proclaimed “Ah Ha, I’m going international baby!!!”
Stereotypes were put to rest and fresh new impressions were made. The resiliency of youth and the ability of young people to overcome cultural barriers and preconceived misconceptions is a lesson for us all. Young people have a lot to offer unfortunately society views them as a nuisance and punishes them for the type of creative expression Br. Mohammed is known for, Aerosol Art.
The experience of this project will remain with me for some time; I’m still riding a high! The women of the Magassa family are some of the strongest, most loving women I have come to know – truly amazing women! Each day, they prepared traditional Malian food which they carried to the site of the mural for us all to enjoy. After losing so much, still they practiced a spirit of generosity and what better way to express their appreciation but by feeding the wayfarer on the street. The young people gathered, many of whom never spoke to the Africans in their community, were touched by the family’s gesture. Even the sister of Elhadi Mohammed, the property owner, made traditional Sudanese sweets for everyone. This was truly a community affair. The warmth and coming together of so many strangers who shared a common belief was a remarkable sight for all those present.
The culmination of the experience was the family adding their own special touches to the mural. Each day we waited for the family to arrive, I would spot the children from afar who would run down the sidewalk and jump into in my arms, hard to imagine that just weeks ago they were jumping from their apartment window to escape the flames. Tiny, delicate hands struggled to manage the pray cans as their smiles were swallowed up by dust masks. Drips and all, it was a beautiful sight!! Ayesha Magassa who escaped the fire by jumping from a 3rd floor window after tossing her 4 young children to bystanders below, still in a wheelchair, refused to miss the opportunity to participate and made her way to the sight of the mural, her youngest child riding on her lap. She too was able to add a few strokes to the wall, further accentuating the beauty that was unfolding.
As the mural neared completion, it was time for Br. Mohammed to add the names of those who perished in the fire. I had the daunting task of ensuring the correct spelling of these proud African names. Mantia, the mother of 5 children whose names were about to be added to the wall stood strong as we checked spelling. A woman who I have come to know as my friend – a woman who gives me strength, a woman who despite losing 5 children, I had yet to see cry – this was about to change.
Br. Mohammed started with the Soumare family names, a mother and her 4 young children, the entire family of Br. Soumare, who was still in Mali where he returned with the bodies of his family. His Sister however was there to witness the names of her Brother’s family becoming part of the memorial. One by one, the names were added as silence blanketed the streets, all sounds seemed to fade into the background. We were all witnessing a somber yet deeply spiritual moment. The survivors of the lethal fire watched on as Br. Mohammed, unexpectedly had to increase the area allocated for the names, there were just too many to fit. As the Magassa children’s names began to be spelled out, Mantia, who had stood so strong, broke down and cried in my arms.
I took a glimpse at all those paying witness, tears filled the eyes of most regardless of age. Though she cried, the mural met Mantia’s approval – it was like she had been waiting to let go of the pain, to exhale, the beauty of the mural gave her the opportunity to begin to heal. As a gift, she gave me a photo of Diaba, her 1 yr old toddler who passed away which now hangs above my desk.
We were near ready to leave and had yet to see the oldest surviving Magassa son. Bubba, age 15, who has been extremely impacted by the fire, losing all four of his younger brothers and a baby sister, Bubba has become very withdrawn and sullen, almost blaming himself for not being able to save his siblings from the flames. As we were packing up he arrived on the scene. Quietly he took his first look at the wall, though he spoke very little words, except for “It’s Good” his eyes brightly said so much more. A boy from a group of youth who had gathered, all around the same age as Bubba asked; “Yo man, you lost your family?’ “We’ll pray for you” and then shook his hand. These young people were moved and I believe they will carry the experience with them. Not only was it a community coming together, it was a lesson in life.
I thank Br. Mohammed Ali for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of his world and I thank him for coming half way around the world to teach us about compassion. I feel truly blessed to have been a part of this project. May our Creator bless Br. Mohammed and his family – PEACE
ICNA Relief USA
Director; Youth and Community Development