There was a small crowd outside that had just begun heading inside, so we conveniently tacked ourselves onto the procession's tail-end and blindly followed, assuming from their similar appearance that they were going where we were going; had it been a queue of robed men in skull caps, I might have asked. Single-file, we trudged up a narrow staircase to a door, where we were indirectly instructed, by overhearing the directions given to those in front of us, to remove our shoes. There was some rumbling at this request, as the modest group of people awkwardly bent over in attempts to undo their laces as though at the airport security checkpoint; those summer-prepared among us easily slipped off their sandals.
It was quickly agreed, however, that this was a Muslim custom, as one man noted he had had to do this the one time he had visited a mosque, following 9/11. The momentary irritation soon turned congenial, taking on an adventurous sense of cultural conformity. You could've served cow brains to little protest at that point. Inside there were low, long wooden shelves to place our now vacated footwear, not unlike a preschool cubby, although the immediate reference in my mind was the similarly simple shoerack outside my Muslim neighbor's apartment door. How familiar and yet completely foreign. The room we entered was larger than your typical living room by about half, and the walls were painted a pistachio green I don't think I'd ever seen outside of a nut, and certainly not on a wall. (Buying cookies at the local shops over the last few years, I was fully aware that Arabs have a penchant for pistachios, so the color scheme quickly made perfect sense to me.) The room was tightly filled with folding chairs placed in sensible rows, though so close together we would be staring at each other's backs, and as we sat down I felt like some sort of local daredevil. We had done it.
We had entered the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge!
I have passed the Islamic Society hundreds of times, but never had cause to go in; after a while, it began to take on the air of that typical sort of ramshackle house common to the suburbs, imbued with ghost story and rumor that scare away school children. Such notions had never been discouraged by my neighbors, as Bay Ridge is not anything if not traditionally racist and unwelcoming, and the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge has assumed an unfavorable reputation among the provincial locals; some of the residents, primarily part of the neighborhood's awfully vocal conservative Old Guard, view it suspiciously, particularly in light of its association with the controversial Islamic Thinkers Society; they're sure that it's merely a front for terrorist activity, as a man associated with the center, who worked at the nearby affiliated bookstore, was recently arrested with an accomplice for plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station. In the mid-nineties, another man, supposedly enflamed by anti-Semitic rhetoric at the Society, opened fire on a Jewish school children, killing sixteen year-old Ari Halberstam. (A few years ago the subject of the Islamic Society even spilled into a dispute over Bay Ridge's Wikipedia entry, as editing residents wanted to include a lengthy passage on the Islamic Society and its terrorist connections, while others claimed such information had no place in an encyclopedia entry. "I feel that this entire issue," the rejected author wrote on the discussion page, "however controversial, is simply a conservative-liberal debate.")
If that's true, the fact that the liberals won that fight is surprising; Bay Ridge leans right and wins right. In another display of liberal strength, here we were, a little over two dozen of us, assembled in the nut-green room for a meeting of the Bay Ridge Neighbors for Peace. My girlfriend and I had come across the group at their information table at the underattended Fifth Avenue Festival; we signed their petitions, got on their mailing list, even scored a polemical button. ("Heal the Wounded. Honor the Dead. End the War." Later in the day, it seemed to confuse the elderly gentleman at the desk for the Bay Ridge Historical Society, who read it aloud with question marks instead of periods.) They had organized a screening of Sir! No Sir! (reviewed here), a documentary about the anti-war GI movement during Vietnam, for Monday, July 9; fliers had been left at the library and emails had come to our inboxes, so we went for the free flick and to throw our support behind a group whose politics we supported and who were based in the neighborhood we'd lived in all our lives.
One of the group's founders, Erica Fox, a frizzle-haired woman--and the shape of a Russian doll--on her way out of middle age, stood next to the twenty-some-odd inch television, perched atop a long wooden desk, to introduce the evening's itinerary. She spoke of the film's resonance and how, as a Vietnam-era activist, she wished she had known that there was such a strong anti-war movement within the military itself; luckier for us, in attendance at the meeting, and a regular member of BRNFP, was a member of the larger group Iraq Veterans Against the War, Mike Harmon, an ordinary enough looking kid--unshaven, portly, baggy t-shirt and jeans--save for the subtle distance in his eyes, the kind you read about in war memoirs common to those who've seen death face-to-face. The screening's subtext seemed to be on building a civilian-military coalition for organizing against the war, as in the film there was copious information about the coming together of ordinarily segregated cliques to bring about an end to the War in Southeast Asia--whites & blacks, hippies & military. In a word, ordinary Americans defined by their humanity and not their race or creed.
Well, being in the Islamic Society seemed like a good start. My friend K., a local Green Party organizer, once told me that a few years ago he'd gone into some of the mosques to talk about the party--how they were the only peace party in the country--and to register voters; he said the reception was curious and warm. (Looking at the Green Party rolls now, during petition drives, one will notice that many of the names of the local registrants are of Muslim origin.) But in fact, disappointingly, no representative of the Islamic Society was on hand; they had graciously offered the use of their facilities at no charge to us (and at presumable cost to them, for air conditioning, electricity, etc.; a collection basket was duly passed out of thanks, so if the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge is a front for terrorist groups I am now arrestable under the Patriot Act), but none seemed to want to be associated or seen with us directly. Save for a mid-film interruption of several minutes worth of a capella, melismatically sung prayers, or at least I assume they were prayers, broadcast from a speaker in the room, one might have forgotten where we were. So much for coming together. Save for a woman in a hajib, with a sinewy man presumably her husband, there was not much of a diverse presence of attendees at the meeting; save for a small group, the majority of which included myself and my miniscule retinue, the crowd was nearly unanimous in their middle-age. Also, at least ninety-five percent of the crowd was white.
Nevertheless, though it was frustrating to see a imbalance of old to young and white to color, it was encouraging to see a smattering of intelligent left-leaning Bay Ridgers gathered together, no matter their uniformity of heritage and age. (The split between sex was about even.) Mike, an articulate and passionate speaker, if a little awkward, and a Bay Ridge native, nudgingly noted that it was "great to see an anti-war movement in Bay Ridge, which leans to the right." It elicited an appreciative chuckle. This was true; Bay Ridge is one of the few districts in New York City to be represented in the House of Representatives and in Albany by Republicans, and Mike pointed-out that this is where the activism needed to begin, where BRNFP had to focus their energy--holding State Senator Marty Golden and Congressman Vito Fossella accountable. Resistance begins locally, and there was a charming sincerity to the group of us assembled in the informality of our socks for no real greater reason that just to be together with like-minded people, to do the least we could in order to feel that we were doing something.
Following the film, a nervously jittery and affable fresh-face by the name of Dave stood to talk about Cindy Sheehan's return to the anti-war movement and her upcoming appearance in New York, as well as to deliver some of the standard rhetoric you'd expect to hear at an anti-war meeting; the war was sold on lies, etc., though Dave was too meek to make the familiar speeches sound insincere. He opened the floor to discussion, and the group began talking: a man in the back told contemporary anecdotes about soldiers opposing the current war, drawing parallels to the film we'd just watched; a woman who'd come from Staten Island, with her husband, spoke of how nice it was to see us all together, and urged us to work together with her local peace group; and a lady, who'd taken the bus from Sunset Park, spoke about how she had worked in one of the radical GI coffee shops mentioned in the film, and suggested that we needed to find a similar space conducive to regular dialogue. Her recommendation met with an awkward silence, as no one had anything to say to that, lacking cafe ownership, only responding by silent, subtle nodding.
Yes, she was right, there ought to be a regular meeting spot like that, but there was nothing really to say or do about it, so members of the audience essentially ignored her and quickly resumed questioning Mike, the evening's unexpected attraction, who gave anecdotal details about soldier life in Iraq: in the early days they shot anyone with a shovel; the only authorized news source is Fox News; marijuana is a growing problem, leading to increased recusancy. The conversation was unfocused and disparate, much like the anti-war movement in the country as a whole--good points were made, good ideas were thrown-out, but none of it seemed to bring anyone any closer to ending the war or even forming a feasible strategy of what to do next, other than to hold more meetings and show more movies. It might not do any good, but at least it's something.
From an optimistic point of view, it could be said that we were bearing witness, possibly, to the inchoate stages of a burgeoning movement. Most of the discussion tended to focus on the fact that it was great that we were together, peppered with pleadings that the attendees all come back and stick together in the long-run. Movements don't form and stir to action overnight. Mike confessed that after a year in Iraq he is no longer right in the head, adding with a nervous chuckle that he just wanted to move out into the woods. Instead, though, he was in the second floor conference room at the Islamic Society, in his socks, doing the only thing he could think of, trying to stop the war.