En route to Bozeman, Montana, on day 21 of a month-long road trip which started on August 11 in New York, 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 took the boys to the closest town—while pointing out 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 duo 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 morphed into a monumental 30-mosques-in-30 days, nationwide road trip. Equipped with their laptop power inverter cords, mobile broadband and $6,000 they raised the “old fashioned way” (through Facebook and Twitter) the pair set out on a trip that took them 13,000 miles around the country journeying from their hometown New York to California and back.
The 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. “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 on the oldest mosque in America 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 connecting threads in a larger narrative that would develop 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 recreate 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 of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and the hollow threats to burn a Koran made by an obscure Florida church pastor have 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.”
With national media coverage attention, including interviews with CNN and NPR and daily visits to their blogs reaching numbers in the tens of thousands, the pair are 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 among the family members but also thoughtful 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.
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.”
Editor's Note: To read Aman and Bassam's trip journal, visit 30mosques.com