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Evening At Brick Lane Mosque

June 20, 2016
by Delwar Hussain

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

Morning At Brick Lane Mosque

18 Responses leave one →
  1. June 20, 2016

    Thanks for a most interesting description and for showing ‘a day in the life’ at the Mosque. Valerie

  2. June 20, 2016

    Fantastic pictures.

    Also looking forward to the days of mixed gender worship

  3. Amoret Tanner permalink
    June 20, 2016

    Beautiful, sensitive and very moving. The two films should be given national coverage.

  4. June 20, 2016

    Great photos Bob and well done for doing the 24 hours stint at the mosque both of you.

  5. Paul Shaviv / NY, USA permalink
    June 20, 2016

    Thank you for two wonderfully evocative posts about the Brick Lane Mosque, where my paternal grandparents and great-grand-parents prayed when it was the Machzike Hadath (=’Upholders of the Faith”) synagogue, and where my late father had his bar-mitzvah at age 13 in the early 1930’s. (The early history of the synagogue is recorded in a book by the late Dr. Bernard Homa, “A fortress in Anglo-Jewry”, 1953).

    A couple of notes:

    1. “Do ‘Chaider’ and ‘Qai’dah’ share the same linguistic root – I wonder ..” — alas, I don’t think so! I don’t speak Arabic, but the Hebrew word ‘Kh-d-r’ here means ‘room’, and was used to describe the one-room classrooms of the Eastern European Jewish villages; thence by extension to mean Hebrew/religion classes attached to a synagogue — usually less formal than a school, and often convening in the evenings after normal school hours. The more accurate pronunciation would be ‘Kheder’; ‘Khaider’ gives the simple Hebrew word a Yiddish inflection.

    2. The plaque to the late Mrs. Kaye! I responded to the request for a translation on a Tweet a few days ago (not sure where that ended up!), but now realize that I omitted to comment on, or translate, the first couple of lines of Hebrew, which are a heading.

    It is not really a prayer, but the top two lines are a quote from Isaiah 56:5, which talks about G-d’s universal promise to make everyone, including the childless eunuchs, part of the Temple community in Jerusalem – “I will give unto them in my house and within my walls [a monument and a name]’. The Hebrew for “Monument and Name” is “Yad Vashem”, and of course from this verse the great Holocaust commemorative museum in Jerusalem took its name in the early 1950’s. in the context of the plaque, it signifies that the family wish the dedication of the classroom to serve as an abiding monument to the memory of the late Mrs. Kaye, “peace be upon her”.

    There is something curious about the quote, however. The biblical verse continues.. ” a [monument and a name], better than sons and daughters”. So the verse is often used to mark memorials to those who leave no children – particularly appropriate in the Holocaust memorial. However, our quote on the plaque “borrows” the word ‘better’ (in Hebrew: ‘tov’, also meaning ‘good’), and appends it to the phrase ‘Yad vashem’, which on the plaque reads ‘Yad vashem tov” — “a monument and a good name”. This is a worthy sentiment, but not faithful to the original Biblical Hebrew. It is also slightly strange that the plaque (in Hebrew, as I pointed out) clearly says that the room was dedicated by Mrs Kaye’s husband and children….

    In full, the Hebrew reads:

    “And I will give them in my House and within My walls
    a monument and a good name”

    This classroom (? department) was purchased [next word unclear] by the generous donors Mr. Mordechai Eliezer Kaye and his children ( / sons – could mean either), may they live [long],
    for the elevation of the soul of their gentle and modest wife and mother
    [name in Hebrew not clear] Rechah Chaya A”H [= aleha haShalom – may peace be upon her]
    who passed away on the 17 Tammuz, in the year 5683″

    The next puzzle is that the Hebrew (as far as I can make it out on the rather unclear photo) gives the Hebrew date of death as kaf-zayin Tammuz — 17 Tammuz, whereas the English inscription gives it as 12 Tammuz! An internet search tells me that the date given on the English inscription — July 1 1923 – was in fact the Hebrew date 17 Tammuz.

    Finally — another quick internet search shows me that Deborah Kaye is buried in Edmonton Jewish Cemetery; that she was 56 when she passed away. This is the record:

    KAY Deborah Ref: C1766 01/07/1923 Age:56 Grave: K 21 23


    (My guess is that there were many other similar plaques in the building.)

  6. Paul Shaviv / NY, USA permalink
    June 20, 2016

    Actually, looking closely again, the Hebrew date of Mrs Kaye’s passing on the English inscription agrees with the Hebrew inscription – 17 Tammuz!

  7. betsy bee permalink
    June 20, 2016

    So, wonderful pictures, but WHERE are the women? How can there continue to be no women in mosques….they are of equal importance….there would not be any men, without women, would there now? I know this is not a political blog, but maybe we need to question intently these men of religion who will not allow women to worship beside them.

  8. pauline taylor permalink
    June 20, 2016

    This is not the place for political or religious comments I know, but betsy bee makes a very good point with which I agree.

  9. Khaldoon permalink
    June 20, 2016

    Another lovely article Delwar. Especially fascinated by Khaidar/Quaida conjectures. And the move in the direction of Essex.

  10. Ros permalink
    June 21, 2016

    Another excellent piece, just as good as yesterday’s or even better, and the same goes for the photos. I think Delwar is saying that this particular mosque uses the Sylheti language and is influenced by a form of sufi local to Sylhet, and that other mosques will reflect different influences. Thanks to both Delwar and Bob for their portrayal of and insights into the Brick Lane mosque.

  11. stephanie permalink
    June 21, 2016

    A lovely gentle tale , again, highlights more what we have in common rather than focus on differences. Hope they get their windows fixed soon. How about following some of Delwar Hussains contemporaries into the suburbs to find out how they are doing?

  12. Richard permalink
    June 21, 2016

    Good that the Jewish memorials are still kept.

  13. June 21, 2016

    Thanks for this. I recognise many of the faces.

  14. June 22, 2016

    Delightful (do hope that’s not the wrong word). And most impressed by Bob’s photographs… and the accompanying time-line.

  15. Shiv Banerjee permalink
    June 24, 2016

    I came to Toynbee Hall East London in May 1975. I recognise many of the faces photographed by Bob. My congratulations to him and the author. An excellent essay of the Brick Lane Mosque which brought back good memories.

  16. Leon Silver permalink
    June 27, 2016

    I don’t claim to be expert but, re Paul Shaviv’s translation of the Hebrew plaque: surely the Hebrew word yad means hand, matzeva meaning monument. I have always understood (misunderstood?) Yad Vashem to mean a hand (to record) & a name (to remember).
    Leon Silver.

  17. Barbara permalink
    September 27, 2016

    It was also my first thought, and I had decided not to comment, but I do agree with Betsy Bee. A pity that daughters, wives and mothers are not afforded the same respect as five year old boys, but are placed at the back.

  18. Riazul permalink
    March 24, 2021

    I was feeling nostalgic of my days in London and stumbled upon this article – so well written and with such lovely photos. Shame I only found this website in 2021!

    While I did not live in the East End, I would frequently take the District line from West London to visit Whitechapel and immerse myself in the Bengali culture of my grandparents. This would almost always include people watching the elderly uncles walking along the street toward the Bricklane mosque, as well as participating in one of its daily congregational prayers.

    I was not part of the community per say and therefore never met the young imam, but it is good to see someone younger taking the helm at the mosque.

    I do sometimes wonder about the mosque’s future as we enter the 2020s. With the exception of Friday prayers, it appeared to me that the mosque’s attendees were almost entirely composed of people in their 70s and older (this was in the mid-2010s). Meanwhile, there are other mosques in the local vicinity with much larger and younger congregations. Furthermore, the local Bengali community in Bricklane is diminishing in numbers. Delwar rightly alludes to this when mentioning his childhood friends moving into the London’s eastern suburbs (presumably due to a combination of ever rising rental prices and the desire to have a better quality of life and more space).

    Perhaps this is just history repeating itself with communities coming and going (first with the Huguenots, then the Jews, and now the Bengalis). That said, I think something really special is being lost as Bricklane becomes more gentrified.

    Anyway, I hope fate allows me to spend sometime in London again… perhaps post-Corona!

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