Last night in the Jacksonville mosque, Aman and I decided to change today’s route from Birmingham, Alabama to Mobile, Alabama. The cause for the change of heart – word of mouth said that Muslims own about 95% of the car dealerships in Mobile, and at that time, it sounded like a nice phenomena to cover.
We enter Mobile, Alabama around 6:30 p.m. and see a wide array of car dealerships surrounding the interstate. There were used cars and new cars. Rows of shiny Sedans, SUVs and Hybrids. The dealerships looked like, well, dealerships. And suddenly, the idea of visiting a car lot seemed incredibly underwhelming. We decide to can the car dealership idea and head over to the mosque earlier than planned in hopes of finding a good lead to a great story.
The mosque is a small house with a lot of land. There is an adjacent playground with a shed attached to it. There are only two cars parked in the lot. Slowly, we all begin to exit the car. The CNN guys, Wayne and Robert, stretch their legs since they’ve been cramped in the back of our modest Cobalt for the last seven hours.
“So can we take pictures of you praying, right?” Robert, the photographer, asks.
“Umm…” I say with hesitation.
A sign outside of the mosque gives strict guidelines on what to wear and how to wear it for both men and women.
“Yeah, lets just be quick with the photos.” I decide.
All four of us enter the mosque and prepare for our shoot. A stoic man with a stunning white beard appears and introduces himself as the Imam of the mosque.
“What are you guys doing?” He asks.
I introduce myself and Aman and then point back at our CNN friends.
“These guys, they are from CNN,” I said.
Robert smiles at the Imam hoping to soften him up.
The Imam looks right at the CNN guys and points to the door.
Within seconds, our CNN friends were out the door. Which left just Aman and I with the Imam. An awkward silence takes over the room and then he continues.
“Why didn’t you guys contact us before coming?” he said.
We apologize for the last minute visit we planned but tell him we tried to get in touch with the mosque but no one picked up.
The Imam stayed quiet.
“Is it okay if we pray here?” I ask.
“Ha, of course,” he says. “This is the house of Allah. I can’t stop you from praying.”
I quickly wash up and pray. We meet up with the CNN guys, Wayne and Robert, standing around in the parking lot. I apologize to them about getting kicked out and we head out of the mosque.
“Damn.” I say as we pull out of the parking lot.
“What happened?” Aman asks.
“How are we going to show that we were here if we can’t take pictures of the mosque?”
It took less than 30 seconds to come up with an idea on how to depict the mosque. I’ve been itching to do this for a while, so without further ado, here are some drawings that will help tell the story.
Our night ends with us dropping off the CNN guys at a rental car joint. We embrace each other and take photos before we part ways. Who would’ve thought that within two days of traveling Aman and I would feel such a deep connection with CNN reporters?
Aman looks at his watch and realizes that it’s time for us to hit the road towards New Orleans, our next stop on the trip.
Tonight marks the first time we are traveling during the night from state to state. We have avoided doing it for many reasons: drunk drivers, huge trucks, and cops. We decide to drive tonight because we have a lot to do in New Orleans and wanted to get there as early as possible.
Aman drives and sings along to Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be In My Heart,” while I type up today’s blog entry.
“CRAP!” Aman says hitting the brakes of the car. “I just sped passed a cop.”
I keep an eye in the rearview mirror on the cop’s headlights. As we move forward in the distance his lights aren’t fading, they are getting closer. Soon enough, the police SUV is tailing us.
Fitteen minutes pass and the SUV is still behind us. Not sure what to do, Aman merges into the next lane to see what move the cop will make.
Right after pulling into the right lane, the cop’s lights turn on. We pull over to the side and hear the footsteps of the cop approaching our car.
“Hello sir.” He says, shining the flashlight in my eyes and looking around our small Cobalt. We wait to hear at what speed he clocked us.
“Well, I pulled you over because you swerved carelessly into the right lane.”
Huh? Aman and I look at each other not sure what he means.
“Officer, I thought I made a legal merge.” Aman nicely refutes.
The officer stays quiet and looks at Aman’s license.
“Sir, this is a State ID. Do you have a license?”
“That is my driver’s license.”
On Aman’s card, I can read ‘Driver’s License’ in big letters.
“Aman sir, can you please step out of the car?” the officer asks.
This is not normal.
I stay put in the passenger seat watching Aman get questioned in the rear view mirror. Not sure what the cop’s asking, I decide to keep the laptop on and have our recent CNN interview ready for play.
The cop walks towards me and asks, “So where are you guys going today?”
“We’re on our way to New Orleans…” I reply.
“So what are you guys doing in New Orleans?”
Clearly, these string of questions have already been asked to Aman and now it’s my turn to see if they add up.
“Visiting Aman’s brother. And, well…” I said.
I wasn’t sure if Aman told him about our 30 mosques project.
“…And?” the officer asks.
“So we’re visiting 30 mosques in 30 days in 30 states. So we’ll be visiting a mosque in New Orleans.”
“Oh, so there’s a mosque in New Orleans!?”
“Uh yeah.” I’m not sure if this a rhetorical question.
The man looks straight into my eyes. I notice his thick southern accent, blue eyes and crew cut blonde hair. I realize that he was serious about his question about mosques in New Orleans, so I turn my laptop towards him and show him our CNN interview.
“See, we were just on CNN.”
I point at Aman and myself sitting with the CNN anchor Kyra Phillips.
The cop pulls his flash light at my laptop screen and watches intently.
“Cool.” he says, “So tell me.”
“What do you think about that Ground Zero Mosque?”
What the heck? At this point, it is clear that our southern Biloxi, Mississippi cop is fishing for some dirt.
“Well…” I finally reply thinking of the conservative talking points I’ve been reading, “For them to build it by Ground Zero is very insensitive.”
He nods his head, so I continue.
“I mean come on, it’s been less than 10 years and we’re still healing from the attack. Isn’t it just a slap in the face?”
“Yeah!” the cop exclaims, “I mean, I’m not pro-religion or anything. But that’s just wrong for them to build it there.”
The cop takes another look inside the car with his flashlight and smiles.
“Thanks for your cooperation.”
Minutes later, Aman jumps back in the car without a ticket in his hand and gives a sigh of relief. He turns the car on and we move forward. One step away from Alabama and another closer to New Orleans, thank heavens.