Synott isn’t the name of the mosque we visited tonight, but that doesn’t matter because in the past ten years I’ve been frequenting it I’ve called the mosque nothing else.
This is your hometown mosque, that mosque where you learned about Islam, ran into your first Muslim crush, where you volunteered at the Sunday school and picked a fight or two when you didn’t have to. It’s that mosque where when you come back after such a long time, you still know you will be breaking your fast with a plate of biryani and yogurt. This is Synott.
Our family started frequenting Synott when we made the big move from inner city Houston to the suburbs. Before Synott, I never knew what a mosque community was like. We only went to mosques on Fridays in these small hole in the wall places near Pakistani restaurants. It was also odd to see people my age hanging out there and not at home.
Another reason why we attended Synott was because the gas station we ran was right next to it. My father would open the gates of the mosque for the morning prayer, Fajr, first and then the doors of our gas station. It was a tough place to be in for our family because we were selling alcohol with one hand and then helping to run the mosque with the other.
Friday prayers were always a little awkward because many of the congregants would end up at our store to fill up gas and buy some candy for their children. As the congregants would be coming in to buy lollipops or pay for gas, many of the day laborers would be cashing in their weekly checks and buying alcohol. The importance of Friday took on a complicated gray meaning.
Of course, we weren’t alone in this. This may as well be the Achilles heel of the South Asian Muslim community in Houston. Running a gas station is a lucrative business and many observant Muslims are guilty of running them. Some have come to terms with their business dealings others are trying to get out. In the beginning, our family was naive enough to think that most of the revenue generated from a gas station comes from the gas. Turns out, you only make 1 cent per liter, which really amounts to nothing. Beer, cigarrettes and lottery become the cornerstone of your business.
We enter Houston from I-10 heading towards 59 South. I see the mildly interesting skyline of Houston and am in awe. I can feel the smog rushing through our windows, the truck drivers trying to overtake us and the XXX Emporium’s neon lights hoping to blind us in midday. There is no place like home.
Aman and I reach Synott mosque right before sundown and are greeted by old friends. I never liked the TV show Cheers but right about now, that theme song “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” seems so fitting.
The following photos are an homage to some of the mosque members that I’ve been seeing as I was a kid, the regulars.
After breaking our fast and praying, Aman and I step outside of the mosque and plot our next move.
Ever since we planned on going to Houston, Aman has been adamant on making some contact with Hakeem Olajuwon, the legendary Houston Rockets basketball player who won the NBA MVP in 1994. Unfortuntately, Hakeem is in Jordan for Ramadan so it didn’t look like we’d run into him. But we decide to visit this strong Nigerian community that’s connected with him.
On the drive over to the Nigerian Mosque, Aman points at a gas station and wonders if that was the one my family ran. It was. I pull into the parking lot and step outside.
When we had the gas station, it was a red Conoco with shiny lights. My father opened it with the hopes of leaving his dead end job and moving forward as a self employed entrepreneur. It was a tough business to run, being open from 5 AM to 12 AM is no joke. It took us five years to get out of the business and when we did, we promised to not look back. The dilemma of course is that without this gas station we probably would still be in the inner city living in our cramped apartment. Running a gas station isn’t as black and white as you think, it’s complicated.
Aman asks me if I want to go inside to see how things are now. I think about it for a second, get back in the car and drive forward.