En route to Bozeman, Montana Bassam Tariq, 23 and Aman Ali, 25 drove their rental car over a rock and broke down on the side of a highway with nary a soul in sight except itinerant coyotes, mountain goats and the occasional bear.
Eventually, a tow-truck driver drove the boys into the closest town – all the while explaining the crosses lining the side of the highway. They were, he explained, the tombs of people who’d died in car accidents on the very highway the boys had spent a better part of their day stranded on.
Despite their obvious predicament the only thing on Tariq and Ali’s mind was whether or not they’d be able to make it for iftaar in the neighbouring state, North Dakota, the following evening.
“We could have been mauled by a gangster bear” laughed Ali, “yet all we could think of was getting to the next mosque in the next state.”
What originally began as a tour of 30 mosques in New York City last Ramadan culminated into a monumental and stirring 30-mosques-in-30 days, nationwide road trip.
Equipped with their laptop power inverter cords, mobile broadband and the $6000 which they raised the “old fashioned way” (through Facebook and Twitter) the boys set out on a 13,000 mile trip journeying from their hometown New York to California and back.
The car breakdown put the boys in a logistical quandary. They would no longer be able to make it to the mosque in Fargo, North Dakota on time. Instead after consulting obscure Google search hits and a 1995 Wall Street Journal article the boys decided to head towards Ross, North Dakota, with renewed hopes of discovering an alleged “Moslem Cemetery” and a possible Muslim community to interact and pray with.
“I have no doubt in my mind that it was fate for us to drive over that rock and to end up in Ross, North Dakota” says Ali.
And certainly, what ensued can be attributable to divine intervention as the boys stumbled upon the oldest mosque in American history built in 1929 adjacent to a Muslim cemetery with markers dating back to the 1860’s. All in a town with a population of 48 people, according to a 2000 US Census report.
This experience would become one of the many adjoining threads in a larger narrative that would develop fastidiously over the 30 days of Ramadan.
And it is this narrative that has allowed Tariq and Ali to reaffirm in their minds and hearts that North America remains a welcoming and supportive community for immigrants and citizens with hyphenated, pluralistic identities.
Their experiences, which they recapitulate through light-hearted posts and stirring photos on their Tumblr blog, 30mosques.com, depict numerous secular, tight-knit Muslim communities across the US that value and uphold a strong sense of faith and community
“[The trip] showed me how integral Muslims are to the American social fabric. Obviously, I had always believed that. But to truly experience our culture and history – that was something else,” said Ali.
The constant media coverage on the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and the hollow threats made by a certain media-savvy, obscure Florida church pastor has created a permeating, polarized, us vs. them mentality.
The stories that Tariq and Ali tell on their blog knit up the strands of a season of irrationality into a cohesive knot of rich Muslim culture and history that has roots deeply entrenched in secular, Western society.
“I hope that what we have done stands the test of time. I hope people can revisit our website and it will still feel substantial” said Tariq, adding, “It’s like Islam-on-trial right now…the problem is we don’t go out and meet our neighbours. We [Muslims] are fine where we are.”
Despite national media coverage attention, including interviews with CNN and NPR and visits to their blogs reaching numbers in the five-digits, the boys are remain humbled by the unanticipated response.
Ali was particularly moved by an e-mail from a recent convert to Islam who had been alienated from his family – until his parents came across Tariq and Ali’s blog. This led to not only reconciliation amongst the family members but also questions on Islam as a faith and the meaning and significance of Ramadan.
“A post [on our blog] that I found really incredible was from a veteran of Desert Storm. He had a really difficult time working with the Muslim prisoners in Iraq. But reading our blog has made him question what he previously thought” said Tariq
Tariq, who had just come back from a four-month, documentary-filming stint in Pakistan, described the long car rides as “therapeutic” and productive as most of their blogging took place during the long drives.
And with Tariq manning the logistics, Ali, a USA Today reporter and avid road-tripper since childhood was content with the 14 hour drives on 4 hours of sleep.
In the upcoming months Tariq and Ali will be conducting workshops and visiting campuses on a cross-country speaking tour – but maintaining their blog presence.
“There’s a ton of content that didn’t make it on to our blog. I’m really excited to share those stories,” said Tariq.
Ali didn’t rule out the possibility of a Ramadan of 30 countries.
“A lot of amazing doors have opened up. We’re bouncing around ideas and doing isthikhaara. I don’t know…30 countries? In due time we’ll do what makes sense.”