If you think Hartford's Bosnian-American Islamic Cultural Center looks abandoned from the street, you should have seen it a few months ago.
In June, when the Muslim group bought the property (bought it outright, with donations), things were even more in flux. The Franklin Avenue building had been a Christian church, and members had started renovating the sprawling, one-story brick building before they sold the property mid-project. Ceilings were unfinished and floors uncovered, but the 500-family group - about 90 percent of whom are Bosnian - moved in, and members rolled up their sleeves.
Several members are skilled at construction, but the electrician in the group doesn't have a proper American license, so for some projects, the center has hired out.
The dropped ceilings are being finished, but in the big room where the Muslims gather to pray - a room that charitably can only be called cavernous - the ceiling is open to the building's inner workings. A sea of area rugs covers the concrete floor.
Damir Hasanovic, the center's president, was a professor in Bosnia, though he can't get his degree out of the country to prove it. To turn this building into a proper meeting place, he has hung some sheet rock and installed insulation. ("It's itchy," he said.) When the building is completed, it will include classrooms in which children who might otherwise lose their culture will learn Bosnian, and adults who are clinging to theirs will learn English. They will teach opposites, said the imam, or spiritual leader, Mirzet Mehmedovic, a handsome man in his late 20s.
"We will be here for the next century," the imam said.
As dedicated as the members are to finishing the work, they slowed during the recent month of Ramadan, which ended last week. It's hard to hang sheetrock when you're tired and hungry, and the Muslim holy month calls for fasting during daylight hours, and then long prayer services at night after iftar, the evening meal that breaks the day's fast. In some Muslim gathering places, evening prayers can last two hours or more. It is an awesome time for contemplation.
During Ramadan, the president of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, Reza Mansoor, tries to visit as many Islamic centers as he can. Each one has a different flavor, depending on the makeup of the membership. He particularly likes the vitality of the one in Hartford's South End. The Bosnian community, he says, has come so far in a short period of time.
And they've brought their stories, sad tales from a bitter war. Hasanovic lost his father in the conflict. They found a foot and part of one leg, but not the rest of him, he said. His mother, brother and sister remain refugees in Malta. He's been told that it will take, at minimum, seven years for him to get his family here, and to be honest, his mother prefers to return home, where Hasanovic worries that it's still not safe.
As he tells his story, Hasanovic shrugs off sympathy. Everyone in the room has a similar sad story, he says, waving his arm over the six lines (three of men, three of women) of people preparing for prayer. That's the men stepping out of their Adidas sneakers, the women, dressed in floor-length skirts, adjusting their head scarves.
And then 11-year-old Saban Becirovic lifts his clear-as-a-bell voice to recite the Quran, and eyes close and backs bend, and the people move quickly through the prayers, genuflection and recitation of scriptures. A man leading a compulsory prayer speaks so fast, he sounds like an auctioneer. A 4-year-old boy, brought by his father so he can learn to pray, starts to fidget.
Afterward, the people move quickly to step back into their shoes, which are fanned out, toes pointing in, where they abandoned them at the door. Briefly, children chase one another around the parking lot. Briefly, a few of the adults gather to smoke, but mostly the parking lot empties as quickly as it filled. Suhoor, the pre-dawn Ramadan meal, comes early.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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