Flow of Baraka
At the request of my dear friend Mohammad Al-Harari, I have taken pen in hand to write a brief overview of the circumstances that brought me to Islam. In doing so it is impossible not to name several influential people who came into my life at a very young age.
From the outset I must remind the reader that I did not convert to Islam from Christianity or any other religion. A better description of what happened to me may be described as “Islamic absorption.” No Shahada was ever given, and none was ever requested. My Shahada came about as the result of a natural sequence of events that I have come to realize as: ‘an Endless Flow Of Barakat’.
This may sound strange but it is quite true, taking into consideration the fact that neither of my parents were practicing Christians and were not members of any church. As a matter of fact my mother had told me too many times during my childhood that she had no respect for institutional religion and no respect for either Ministers or ‘preachers”, whom she viewed as parasitic and given to taking advantage of women and young boys.
The ‘church’ on the other hand was described by my mother as being worthless as far as Black people were concerned, and was used as a tool by the white man to keep us under his control. The aftermath of Slavery left a very bitter taste in my mothers mouth –she would always remind me that the white man forced the book on both the enslaved Africans and the native Indians, then while ‘giving them the book’ – they stole all the land and enslaved their souls.
With a little imagination you can see that what I have described above was comparable to being in a ‘spiritual vacuum’ – I have often considered that vacuum a blessing, and an indication of Allah’s Barakat, because it was into that early childhood vacuum came an unsuspecting African traveler by the name of Ali Musa. His birth name was: Hussein Ali bin Musa, and his people are known in the Horn of Africa as: Adam Madoba.”
Mr. Musa, as he was called by my family and also by the members of the black community in Roxbury who knew him best, arrived into our lives quite early in my childhood, during the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.
According to family history Mr. Musa appeared in my fathers tailor shop one day shortly after he had ‘jumped’ ship. It appears that he had been working as a merchant seaman and had come ashore at the Port of Boston carrying the I.D. of a Yemeni seaman who had died at sea.
My father befriended Mr. Musa, whom I shall now refer to as Musa and brought him home to our apartment in Roxbury. Musa became a frequent visitor to our home and as is the case in most black families he became part of the family and thus became my adopted Uncle. My father also helped Musa launch his career as a house painter and home decorator in Boston.
Many of the old timers remember him walking through the streets of Roxbury dressed in his white painters clothes carrying his ladder on his shoulder and his buckets of paint. This black African man soon became a legendary character in Boston and many stories were told about his mysterious past in Africa.
To my best memory he never learned to read or write English, and he spoke what little English he knew with a very heavy & highly articulated African (Somali) Accent that some found difficult to understand. But not for me – aside from his daughter Halima, I became one of his best interpreters.
I can still remember him coming into my room at night when I was very young, to say goodnight, picking me up in his arms and hugging me –he had a very unique smell about him which I learned later was a mixture of aromatic pipe tobacco and a fragrant floral body oil.
His voice was warm and deep, evoking Africa with each sound. His strong accent was in stark contrast to my parents but it became as familiar to me as my own voice, because as time passed when he came to visit he would sit me on his knees and tell me stories – many of these stories dealt with a character simply called Mustapha, then later called Mustapha Muhammad, whom later became known to me as Nabi Mohammad (pbuh).
I remember one story he told me about the great elephant on whose back the earth was resting, and that the legs of the elephant were the four great religions, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism.
He told me many tales about his youth: about sailing in small boats – diving for pearls, & being dropped overboard standing on a big rock and holding on to a long rope. He told about being born in Aden and being in Damishaq, traveling to many places and seeing all sorts of sights. As you can well imagine what this did for my childhood imagination – it was much better than a comic book. Through Mr. Musa I received a look into the panorama of the world, it’s peoples and it’s cultures. In retrospect, it was if by some strange and mysterious act of kindness, Allah had sent me a gift in the person of Ali Musa.
It was by his Adab that he made his way into our hearts. It was by his acts of kindness toward my family, particularly toward my mother and my sisters that endeared him to me, and I must say after much thought, that it was through this great mans influence that I began to love Islam as a young man and to learn The Fatiha from his lips.
The Fatiha eventually led to the Salat and the Salat led me on to ever increasing experiences with different groups of Muslims and the world of Islam – and on to a lifetimes search to gain a closer proximity to Allah.
Mr. Musa died in the Mattapan State Hospital, Mattapan Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston on June 8th, 1959. “May Allah send light to his grave – And illuminate his memory!”
The night of the day he died I was lying across the bed reading a book. I remember clearly the warm fragrant breeze that was coming through the screened windows from the tree lined park outside –I stopped reading because I thought I had heard someone call me, I looked around and saw nothing but felt a presence. I closed my eyes in an effort to focus, and then I realized Mr. Musa’s presence. I realized in that instant that he had passed away and his soul was in my room asking me to pray for him. I rushed to the bathroom and performed wudhu and then offered several rakats for him. The intensity of the presence waned and I went to bed and dreamed about him. These dreams came as vivid memories, reminders of who he was and what his role in my formative years.
In one dream I was caused to remember that Musa would come to visit our home usually on a Friday or a Saturday. It would be advisable to remember that this was during the time of the Great Depression and money and food were very hard to come by. Anyway he would usually come carrying large paper bags of food, mostly vegetables he would give these bags to my mother instructing her with a firm voice: “Black woman do not cook this with pork”, he would say emphatically “NO PORK FOOD”. She would nod her head in agreement and proceed to cook the food.
I remember quite clearly when it was served that he would only eat a very little, he would then get up and leave abruptly. For many years I thought he was mad at us or did not like how it was cooked – but my mother clarified the issue when she told us that it was his way of bowing out of being thanked for feeding some very hungry people. You knew that he was aware that people all around him in America were hungry, particularly poor black folks like us – so he brought much and ate little. A great first lesson in Adab.
Other dreams reminded me of when he would come to visit and bring his clothes for my sisters to wash and iron for him, and then later they would clean his apartment and run errands for him, thereby earning money to buy clothes for school. Again he proved better than our own father who had deserted us earlier and was not to be found.
Perhaps the most indelible dream was the one in which I was reminded that sometimes he would come on Fridays, in the afternoon and ask my mother if he could take me for a walk -knowing that she would always consent and I knew that I would be in for a big treat. During these walks we would sit in a local park and he would ask me to read letters sent to him from many different places.
One mans handwriting I remembered most and that was of a man who called himself Charlie Brown. These letters that appeared to be written by a child because of their awkward scrawl usually had money in them. Usually when I finished reading them Musa would take me to a bank where I would buy money orders and then I would address these letters to someone in England with my own childish scrawl and take them to the Post office to be sent off. Musa would then take me to a sweet shop and we would celebrate with ice cream and soda, and if I were really lucky that day he would tell me a story. I remember that he liked telling stories about camels and he would sometimes bring me small boxes of dates that had a picture of a camel on the label. Ever since those days I have always liked the sight of camels and I particularly love dates. Each Ramadan when the sun sets –I remember him.
It wasn’t until years later after I had moved to New York City and met Hassan Dhrepaulezz the owner of “Café Aladdin”- did I understand the historical importance of those early walks with Mr. Musa, the letter readings and the visits to the bank and the post office.
Café Aladdin was a well-known Gourmet restaurant located on Cornelia St. in Greenwich Village. It served as meeting place for many of the Africans, particularly the Somalis and Ethiopians who happened to be passing by. The other two places in New York that were popular with older Somali’s and Ethiopian Muslims were the Somali Hajj Yusef’s Shoe Shine stand on 125th St. and the African Quarter in Brooklyn. The Malay brothers had a few coffee shops and eating establishments in the lower East Side of Manhattan, but Café Aladdin was the undisputed gathering place and African information center largely because you would find the likes of Ibrahim Guled and other former African Diplomats sitting and drinking coffee.
As it turned out Hassan Dhrepaulezz had served as the coordinator of a Somali Resistance group based in Britain at a time when Somalia was fighting against Italian occupation and he like Mr. Musa before him was always humming or singing: “Dhu Kayaga” –the Somali Freedom Song.
Hassan had lived in the U.K. during those early days of the Fighting and according to him he had worked at the London Times in the photography department. It was during a brief period that I worked as a waiter in his restaurant that he asked me to recite the Fatiha for him. After the recitation he asked me where I had learned how to recite it ‘that way.’ Something about The style of the recitation was familiar to him. I told him that I had learned it from my Somali uncle, Ali Musa in Boston many years ago. Well this turned out to be both an argument and then a revelation.
Hassan denied that there were ever any Somali’s in Boston during that time (1930’s/1940’s) He would have known because he was the coordinating Secretary of The Somali Resistance group in Europe and America. However as a result of my persistence he then begin to remember receiving letters filled with money from a young boy in Boston at that time.
He looked at me in amazement and said that I must have been that boy because of the intricate details. And also the mention of a man who went by the name of Charlie Brown by me – who was later identified by Hassan as the disguised name of a Somali man named Muhammad who lived in Chicago at that time. No one would have had that information but the boy who had sent the letters, and that boy was I.
He declared me an unknown hero of the Somali Resistance, hugged me and kissed me and pulled me out of the kitchen and into the dining room to share this information with Ibrahim Guled who had served as a Senator during one of the earlier Somali Governments and was now in exile.
It was during this time and during many of our later conversations did I learn that I had served unknowingly in the transfer of money to support the Somali Resistance. That Ali Musa was one of many young men who had been sent out of the country to raise funds for the resistance and that Somalis and their sympathizers lived in many cities around the world.
As for Hassan the owner of Café Aladdin – I remember that Hassan said on several occasions that his mother was a Harrarian woman from Jig-Jiga, and his father was a Somali from Hargeysa, or vice versa.
Hassan died in Berkeley California, around 1985 or 1986. I was living in Oakland then and found myself in the company of some Somali Students who were attending the University of California in Berkeley. It was during this meeting that I mentioned the names of some of the Somali’s I had known in New York and in Boston. These students informed me that they had known Hassan and had raised money at the University to bury him the previous year. He had come to California for treatment of a rare disease from which he later succumbed. He is survived by an American wife s by the name of Fatimah and they had several children. He has one older son I remember, by the name of Abdullah. His widow was known to have been selling Teas and spices in the Berkeley Flea Market during those years.
Hassan’s memory of Musa was impaired as a result of losing contact with him after so many years had past, and the conflict with Italy had long come to an end. However after they heard my story and learned of the good he had done in Boston particularly feeding the poor and helping me grow into a Muslim they wept openly and read Fatiha for him and his family.
Ibrahim Guled died in New York during that time and according to my late teacher Sheikh Daoud, Ibrahim died from a broken heart. However if the truth were told, many of these men died alone, in strange cities with no families or friends to bury them. “May Allah reward them with a place in the Garden.” Ameen!
They also informed me that Hajj Yusef the Somali coffee seller and incense maker who had plied his trade for years from a tiny stand on 125th Street in Harlem was eventually shot and killed by an unknown robber. It was reported that the robber was never caught and had gotten away with only a few dollars that the old man had in a cigar box.
There are many more characters in this long story, most are unknown and unnamed but not forgotten. I understand that there are many old timers still alive who live in Cardiff and Toronto who have strong links with that past.
For those who may be asking what the moral of this story is? I ask them to search their own conscience and not to be afraid to use their imagination.
I had sworn that if I ever had a son that I would name him Musa. I eventually had a son who was born on the 25th night of Ramadan, and I named him Musa Ramadan -in honor of Hussein Ali Bin Musa, and also for the Holy month in which he was born. For me, every bit of this narration from beginning to end is a clear indication that Allah blesses those whom He chooses, and He forgives those whom He chooses.
I conclude in the same way as I began by confessing my debt to those brave men and women who emerged from the Horn Of Africa and were responsible for the spread of the Light of Islam and True Friendship throughout the world.
As for the readers of Malasay I feel it my duty to remind them all that Harer is the historical Center of that Endless flow of Barakat that floods the Eastern Coast of Africa, just as Timbuktu was in the West of Africa. My prayer is that they will again regain their spiritual status as central arteries in the very heart of Islam in Africa.