Evening At Brick Lane Mosque
Today, as part of the Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival, we publish the second of the pair of stories by Contributing Photographer Bob Mazzer & Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain recording twenty-four hours at Brick Lane Mosque
Imam Yasin is the newest imam at the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid. He is just twenty-six years old and has a contagious laugh that is free and easy. I ask him how he ended up becoming an imam. He laughs and says he does not know the answer. He grew up in Poplar and attended school in Bethnal Green. He tells me he always wanted to be a teacher and worked in a primary school before being asked to join the mosque, where he was already involved in teaching children the Quran.
We are on the top floor outside the teachers’ staff room. The streets are getting dark and soon it will be time to break the fast. I asked Imam Yasin to take my collaborator Photographer Bob Mazzer & me to his favourite part of the building and this is where he brought us. In the early hours of the morning when the pair of us ventured up here previously, it was dark and very quiet. I spooked myself then by thinking about djinns but now, with Imam Yasin and his smile by our side, it could not feel more different.
“This entire building has such a wonderful history,” he tells us. “It is the only place outside of Jerusalem that has hosted the three Abrahamic faiths. That really is something. But up here, this floor is my favourite bit of it all, it means so much to me, it is where it all began when I was eighteen and started teaching.”
Imam Yasin explains that, alongside learning the classical Arabic script in which the Quran is written, children who come here are taught about Islamic identity, dress code and food. “But, by that age,” Bob enquires, “don’t children already know these things?” Imam Yasin laughs again.
“You would be surprised how many of them are confused when they arrive. Some of the children think Christmas and, in particular Jesus, is bad or against Islamic beliefs. In fact, we teach them that Jesus is one of the most beloved of Allah’s prophets, mentioned more times in the Quran than Mohammed himself.”
We are standing below the plaque dedicated to the memory of Deborah Kay, written in English and Hebrew. I had been told that the Hebrew is a direct translation of the English but Imam Yasin disagrees. Hebrew speakers who came to the building as part of a Jewish tour of the East End had translated it for him. According to them, he says, part of it is also a prayer. Unfortunately, Bob cannot break our deadlock, having forgotten the Hebrew he learnt as a boy. “If it looks like an ‘L’ than it is an ‘L’,” he says unhelpfully, peering at the writing though his glasses.
Then, as we are standing in this building on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier St – a mosque which was once a synagogue which was once a church – the sediment of history momentarily settles. Bob recalls that when he attended ‘chaider’ (pronounced khaider) at the Bernard Baron Settlement on Henriques St as a boy, he was taught Hebrew and history – essentially Jewish identity. A realisation dawned for me. Before learning the Quran, I was taught the ‘Qai’dah’ (pronounced khaider) which lays out the alphabet and rules of pronunciation. Do ‘Chaider’ and ‘Qai’dah’ share the same linguistic root – I wonder – reminding ourselves of our shared humanity?
At 9:23pm the sun sets and it is time to break fast. We have been at the mosque for nearly nineteen hours. Ravenous men with little energy and, by now, even less humour go down into the cellar. It looks as if it may have once been a bomb shelter, painted with white, lime and red stripes throughout. Lit by harsh fluorescent lighting, lines of blue plastic tarpaulin and white paper run the length of the floor, laden with white plates of kichuri (rice and dhal), chickpeas, sweets, dates and pineapple. Some of this is donated by local restaurants but, during Ramadan, families in the neighbourhood – my mother included – also send food every day.
A few of these hungry men have ‘Deliveroo’ marked on their t-shirts, others work as cabbies, some are widowers or foreign students. Once the azaan is called, everyone takes a swig of water – their very first since sunrise. The man in a plaid shirt sitting in front of me holds a pile of medication. He takes little white and pink pills methodically before biting his dates and tucking into the rest of the meal. The men eat quickly, in silence and without fuss.
My mother refuses to accept that, when the caretakers receive the Tupperware boxes she prepares lovingly, they simply put the food into one big communal pile. She thinks hers are eaten separately – maybe – by the head imam himself.
In this place, time does not operate as it does on the outside. This is a space that forces you to sit still, reflect and be at rest. Yet, paradoxically, the opposite is also true. Nothing stands motionless here for long either, there is constant activity and movement. After we eat, there is little chance to digest because we go back upstairs for Terrabi. It is the main Ramadan prayer, when the entire Quran is recited by heart over the course of a month. This is an endurance test and can be gruelling, because of the amount of time you must be prostrate or kneel while each prayer is completed. Even the plushness of the carpet does not help much at this point yet, like many religious experiences, this prayer series is designed to encourage meditation and can propel you into a higher state of being.
I sit on the mezzanine floor hoping to see friends I had gone to school with. As a teenager, I spent long, memorable evenings with them here. But I am disappointed, I do not see any of them. I look around and only see a guy who was at school with me in the year above. He looks much older from how I remember him, and he has a pony tail and a little rice belly. Other younger people, groups of teenage friends are creating new memories in this building, but what has happened to those I used to come here with? Why are none of them here?
This is when it all comes full circle – the denouement, the reveal. It is not difficult to guess and if you have not worked it out, then you have not been following the clues. Most of my friends and their families from school, including many neighbours, have followed the routes our Huguenot and Jewish forebears have already taken – further east into the suburbs. Seven Kings, Ilford, Chelmsford, Barking, Dagenham – names that I did not ever hear mentioned as a child are now in common parlance. The residents of these places have their own mosques and – needless to say – have little reason to come back to Brick Lane. My sister and her family moved to Essex last year. Long lines on the human map of Spitalfields, extending from this building on the corner, now include those spaces too, becoming ever more densely woven.
Young people are enticed by mosques that have better resources paid for through international funding and not merely supported by local donations. Mosques that are not characterised by the use of the Sylheti language or that practice a localised sufi Islam, where they have air conditioning, up-to-date facilities for women, and the roofs and windows do not leak. I notice a window on the mezzanine has been barred up since strong winds in April knocked out its fragile glass. Other windows facing Fournier St are filled with cardboard cut from boxes. I wonder whether Imam Nazrul Islam’s plea to the congregation earlier, at Jummah, will deliver the desired outcome.
Terrabi finishes just shy of 1:00am. In an hour or so, the day will start and, with it, the cycle of prayer and fasting. I look for Bob but cannot find him and I assume he has gone home. By now, we had been at the mosque for nearly twenty-four hours. We had seen so many faces, heard so many voices and been told so many memories by the people who love this building and have an intimate attachment to it. Except, the following morning, I discovered that Bob had stayed at the mosque after I left, lying on the carpet and talking with someone about the first man on the moon.
I follow a line of old men out. They put one foot in front of the other, walking in a line, leg, stick, pause, leg, stick. It has rained and the air is cool and crisp. I pass a group of Scandinavians with luggage trolleys who have just arrived at Liverpool St Station from a RyanAir flight and are looking for an address on google maps. The grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of those first Sylheti seamen who had settled in Spitalfields and who, forty years ago this year, established the mosque, were too on the move. At that moment, the motto Umbra Sumus (We are shadows), the Latin inscription on the sundial upon the building on the corner, could not have been more fitting.
Photographs copyright © Bob Mazzer
You may like to take a look at the first part of this story