In 1987, Warith Deen Muhammad, the son of Elijah Mohammad, took a shovel and dug it deep in a small farmland. It was the groundbreaking for New Medina, a small community in rural Southwest Mississippi that would celebrate the values of Muslims and the African American experience.
The story made the front page of The Muslim Journal and many members of the African American Muslim community were enamored by the idea. The promise of a self-sustaining community that championed values, harmony and healthy living was compelling. More than 5,000 families inquired to buy land. The plans were drawn out and many families began to move into the New Medina. They were all pioneers part of this large and revolutionary initiative that hoped to create a unique and vibrant Muslim American culture.
Aman and I enter the gates of New Medina and make our way to meet the Imam, the spiritual leader, of the community. We aren’t sure which one is his house so we begin to knock on all the doors we see. The town is quiet. Not a single car or soul passes by. Soon enough, we find ourselves at the door of a man named Abdul Shareef (Brother Abdul) and he is happy to take us on a tour throughout the New Medina property in his Toyota pick-up truck. Shareef is 81 years old. He hunches when he walks and speaks with a soft, disarming cadence. I ride shotgun in his truck as he takes us through the neighborhood.
The following photos were taken while riding in Brother Abdul’s truck tour through New Medina
Brother Abdul is a pioneer of the community. He was one of the founding members of New Medina. I asked him why he wanted New Medina to be in Mississippi.
“I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. After being in Chicago, I wanted to figure out a way to move back here.”
Brother Abdul worked as a mailman for the post office his entire life. He retired in his 60’s and now spends most of his time at the mosque. His wife and him have been married for the past 62 years. There are only eight families in all of New Medina. Two of the eight are Christians, but all are African American. There is a sea of wild grass on all sides of the area with small vegetation areas fenced up.
“We have to fence the vegetation otherwise the deer will come and eat it all.”
Most of the families have their own farms, some grow chicken, others grow vegetables and fruits. All the street signs are named after the attributes associated with God: Ar-Rahman, the merciful. Al-Halim, the Forebearing One, etc.
“To be honest, we expected there to be more growth by now.” Shareef mumbles, “but I guess we’ll have to be patient.”
The majority of the families that live out in New Medina are retired or have some sort of supplemental income that allows them to live out as far as they do. The lack of career opportunities in rural Southwest Mississippi made it less appealing for young people and that’s why New Medina has now become more of a retirement community than a haven for young Muslim cultural development. This has been the most difficult hurdle for the growth of New Medina and that’s why development has been stagnant.
We all gather in the mosque to break our fast. The mosque serves as the center of all the community activities. There are two women and four men present. They welcome us with open arms and dates. Most people in the community have retired and are enjoying the quiet life. The imam of the community, Alvin Shareef, is the son of Abdul Shareef and teaches computer classes at the local community college in Southwest Mississippi. Him and his wife seem to be the youngest members at the dinner. Everyone has a glass bottle in their hand that they use for water.
“We try to cut back on as much plastic as we can.” Imam Alvin says.
The community dug a well that serves as their primary water source. It is some of the best tasting water I’ve had. The members of the congregation are all health conscious so a lot of the food we have for dinner is grown locally.
“You all need to help get the word out about New Medina.” Says one of the community members. “We need younger people. More pioneers”
“I get what you’re saying, but I like living in New York.” I say, “why would a young professional want to move here?”
“But we want people to enjoy living a full-life.” Says Imam Alvin. “Right now, a lot of young people are stuck in these unnatural concrete jungles and the life is just so artificial.”
There is a part of what he’s saying that makes a lot of sense, but there is a part of me that refuses the idea of living out and away from everyone else.
“But don’t you feel like you are just escaping from everything else?” I refute.
“But what does the fast city life have to offer? The days we get tired of the country life we go visit Hattiesburg or Jackson. Sure, it’s no Chicago or New York, but it has all the amenities we need.”
We agree to disagree.
“How old are you?” Asks one of the ladies sitting in the distance.
“24,” I say.
“Yeah, well you’re too young to understand what this means and why you would need it.”
Everyone laughs. A part of me is upset that my point isn’t understood but when I look around I can’t help and notice that everyone here maybe 30 to 40 years older than me, but they are in great shape, have very healthy eating habits and most importantly are happy doing it. So I join them in the laughter. I have to accept that most people in New York their age are not as healthy or happy.
We head out in the night with Brother Abdul as our guide. There are no lights on the road, just a Toyota Tacoma leading the way. We follow him as carefully as we can.
I stick my head when I notice the stars in the sky. I flip out.
“Aman, look! Stars!”
Aman shrugs. Living in New York City the lights from the buildings blind what’s above us. It had been over a year since the last time I saw stars. The sky stands naked, the way they looked in my astronomy textbooks, the way we all are supposed to see them.
A minute later, the highway stands in front of us. The flood lights of the highway blind the sky but will help guide us through the night.
Brother Abdul waves goodbye. He turns his Tacoma around taking the skies and stars with him.