I looked at Feroz Mahal, a tall and burly Punjabi man with an “I Love Canada” lanyard around his neck, from across the room and slowly gravitated towards him.
He drove a tractor trailer thousands of miles from Vancouver, Canada and somehow wound up here in the mosque to be among the congregants of Masjid Ash-Shaheed, a predominantly African American mosque that is so inviting to anyone that comes inside that the hospitality is practically intoxicating.
Feroz, 35, is a jolly guy that spends his days driving trucks, oftentimes alone on the road for days, to provide a stable life for his wife and three children – two boys, 10 and 4, and a girl, 7.
“I miss them, but I do this because I’m able to provide for them a good education and a good house,” he says as he takes off his baseball cap to scratch his head. “Plus how else am I going to afford the Cadillac in my driveway?”
Masjid Ash-Shaheed is nestled on a huge parcel of land in a quiet part of Charlotte. The mosque follows the teachings of the late Imam Warith Deen Muhammad and everyone is eager to make you feel at home the moment you step inside. But as I was sitting at the table enjoying my dinner among the mosque’s congregants, I paused to look across the room again to see Mahal cracking jokes with people he was sitting next to.
Feroz has been in the trucking business for over 15 years. He was driving his truck from Canada all the way down to North Carolina, when the trailer he was hauling filled with electronics broke down right outside of Charlotte. There aren’t many Muslims in his line of work but he met one at a highway truck stop who told him about Masjid Ash-Shaheed a few highway exits over.
Speaking to Feroz made me constantly think about my father. My father for many years worked as a sales manager for a baking company, and would often be on the road 5-6 days a week traveling to meet with clients across the country. He never enjoyed a single minute being away from us, but my brothers and I always knew he was making that struggle so we didn’t have to.
I had to ask Feroz more about his lifestyle, because echoing in my mind was the daily grind my father put himself through to provide for me and my four brothers growing up. Mahal said what gets him through his job is his loving family. His wife and kids are incredibly supportive of what he does, and sometimes they tag along with him on his long ventures across Canada and the United States. I begin to think about the times I would spend my summer vacations as a kid sitting shotgun next to my dad as we explored the countryside and played dumb word games along the way.
Feroz said being away from his family is always tough, but the perks of his job validate the sacrifice. In a given month, he can rack up anywhere between $12,000-15,000. Plus, he typically will spend 7-10 days on the road, followed by a week or two where he’s at home doing nothing, but spending time with his family. In a given year, he probably spends 8 months on the road and 4 months at home.
After prayer, Bassam and I asked if we can check out his truck, which was parked outside of the hotel he was staying at near the mosque. He invites us inside the rig as he starts the truck’s engine that roars in the empty parking lot. I open the door and grab onto a rail to pull myself up inside to chat with Feroz some more.
Feroz gives me the “MTV Cribs presentation” of his truck as he pulls open a curtain behind his driver’s seat to showcase a bunk bed inside. Typical trucks he drives can come equipped with bathrooms, full size kitchens and televisions to pass the time on those long grueling hauls on the road.
I sit on the bottom portion of the bunkbed as Bassam sits shotgun snapping pics of Mahal as he talks about his truck. He’s a little camera shy, but quickly warmed up to the photos. His eyes quietly lit up when I asked him more and more about his truck.
Mahal seems like a man at peace with his own lifestyle. When you love your family, he told me, you are willing to do anything to give them a better life. I paused again to think about my dad, because the life that blessed me with this opportunity to chat with Feroz during this road trip, was in more ways than one facilitated by my dad.
Bassam and I must leave Charlotte early at 4 a.m. to make it to Atlanta for our CNN interview in the morning (10:15 a.m. Wednesday Eastern Standard Time, set your DVR!). When my Dad sees me on tv talking about this project on national television, I hope he sees that the pain he dealt with missing my baseball games and school plays as a kid was worth it in the long run.
photos by Bassam Tariq