It was mid-August 2010 and the “9/11 Mosque Controversy” was dominating the news. You could not turn on the television without seeing political pundits or religious figures debating the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. There were also plans by a Florida pastor to conduct book burnings of the Koran on the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and this garnered significant media attention as well. These stories were on my mind as we entered the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, VA. We were there to film footage of prayer sessions at the mosque, as well as an interview with Imam Shaker Elsayed, the Center’s religious leader. Shaker is well known in the Northern Virginia Muslim community as a civic activist, and he is the unofficial spokesman for the family of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who is one of the central characters in our show.
Dar al-Hijrah sits less than 10 miles outside of Washington, DC and is one of the largest mosques on the East Coast. It serves as a place of worship for nearly 40,000 Muslims who reside in this area of Northern Virginia. The mosque is not without its share of controversy, however; former attendees include Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour (two of the 9/11 hijackers) and Nidal Malik Hasan (the sole suspect in the 2009 Fort Hood shootings). In my initial conversations with Imam Shaker Elsayed, he seemed a little distrustful towards the media and he was certainly apprehensive about allowing our film crew inside the mosque’s walls. After a number of talks however with Shaker and Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Dar al-Hijrah’s Outreach Director, we were finally let inside.
It was the middle of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. During Ramadan, participating Muslims must refrain from eating or drinking anything (including water) until sundown. As we prepared to film our interview with Shaker Elsayed in the windowless library at Dar al-Hijrah, the blasting air conditioner was creating noise problems for our shoot, forcing us to turn it off. This was summertime in Virginia, so the room temperature jumped up significantly. The thought of not being able to have a drink of water during the warm day seemed impossible to me, so I certainly felt sympathy for our hosts — I made sure that our bottled water was kept inside my backpack.
Following the interview, we moved into the prayer area to get footage of the five daily prayer sessions. This was my first time inside a mosque and it was a much more unique experience than I had anticipated. We were instructed to take off our shoes before stepping onto the cushioned floor. It was very soft, I suppose to accommodate the constant kneeling and bowing during prayer. The room was filled with a variety of Muslim men from diverse ethnic backgrounds (women are segregated to a separate room in the building). The prayers were recited in such a manner that, to my ears, sounded like singing. It was all recited in Arabic so I could not understand what was being said, but it sounded beautiful.
After more than half a day of filming, the crew and I were low on energy and needed to eat. We asked our hosts about nearby restaurants and they offered to feed us instead since they were preparing food for an Interfaith dinner they were hosting at sundown to break the fast. I felt a bit uncomfortable eating in front of them since they were still fasting, but they insisted. A table was set up for our crew in a private office with tablecloth and place settings, where we were fed heaping portions of chicken, rice, salad, and bread. The food was quite good and the crew and I were extremely grateful for their generosity.
Once the sun was down, it was time to film the ritual breaking of the fast. This particular occasion was different in that Dar al-Hijrah hosted an Interfaith ceremony, with members of other religious congregations participating in a sign of unity within the community. Everyone is handed a medjool date, a prayer is recited, and everyone takes a bite signifying the end of their fast. It was fascinating to see the unity and support between participants of differing backgrounds and it showed that no matter what kind of religious differences people may have, we can all still live together.
Be sure to tune in tonight to FBI: Surburban Surveillance at 8P et/pt. Here’s a sneak peak from tonight’s premiere: