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Islam and Old Glory

Devon Avenue merchants show their stuff.

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West Devon was bustling as usual on Saturday night. Between Damen and California the Indian and Pakistani shops huddle shoulder to shoulder in a riot of signage and neon. Cars crawl slowly along the congested street as the sinuous voices of Hindi pop singers emanate from overloaded speakers. Women lead children in groups on the crowded sidewalks, while bearded middle-aged men in tunics converse on the corners.

Nearly every business on the strip is decorated by the Stars and Stripes, especially the Pakistani places: a wide variety of American flags--from postcard size to beach blanket--appear to have been hurriedly taped to windows. Some hang backward; others are accompanied by legends like "God Bless America," or by the green-and-white flag of Pakistan with its Muslim crescent. A few U.S. flags look like computer printouts, and a large, translucent decal bears the tiny inscription "Made in China." Dozens of storefronts display the same banners--the paper Old Glory from last week's Sun-Times, or a curious cloth flag that's not rectangular but perfectly square. One beauty parlor oozes the Stars and Stripes from every pore: the square flags are stuck all over the windows and hang from the awning. Taller patrons must duck to enter.

The flags might be a spontaneous expression of the passionate patriotism so common among immigrants from poor countries. They might also be a sort of secular visual prayer, to which people historically have clung in times of national crisis and perceived danger. Then again, the flags might simply be intended to serve as shields against rocks and bricks. It's impossible to know, but there's no reason why they can't be all these things at once. At the Noor Meat Market, kitchen utensils and cricket bats share the window with a big sign. "WE JOIN THE NATION IN MOURNING," it says, quoting sura 17, verse 33 of the Koran: "And do not kill any one for no reason, which God has forbidden."

At the back of the Iqra Book Center near the corner of Devon and California, a middle-aged man leads four younger men in the salat al maghrib, or sunset prayer. Facing east, they kneel on a carpet and prostrate themselves, softly chanting verses while several patrons wander through the store and no one watches the cash register. The shelves are full of ornate copies of the Koran, encyclopedias of Islamic scholarship, Arabic language instruction tapes, children's books, CDs of Pakistani and Middle Eastern music, and videotapes of speeches by Islamic scholars--including several by the British lecturer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens. There are also books by Muslim commentators on history and current events, including several volumes on the Arab-Israeli conflict and a book by Professor Dr. Ala'dul Deen Kharroufah titled The Judgment of Islam on the Crimes of Salman Rushdie.

At Islamic Books & Things, about a block west of Iqra, manager Abdul Qadeer Sheikh is talking with his customers. One of them is searching for a book about the history of the Balfour Declaration, in which the government of Great Britain supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Another says he's looking for "a book about how to pray." The store's shelves are stocked with tomes on philosophy, history, and economics, as well as such titles as How to Tell Others About Islam, The Disasters Darwinism Brought to Humanity, and The Ugly Truth About the Anti-Defamation League. Hanging on the wall behind the counter--alongside homey plaques with Koranic verses--is a clock with seven faces. The face at the center is an actual clock that tells the current time. The other faces are set by hand to indicate the day's five prescribed times for prayer--times which vary with the lunar cycle. The seventh clock face marks the time for the congregational prayer that takes place in mosques every Friday.

The compact, bearded Sheikh came from Pakistan 16 years ago to join his brother and parents in Chicago. He attended Loop College and drove a cab before taking over the bookstore in 1999. "I am not an intellectual," he says. "I am only a shopkeeper." He stresses that he has no great expertise on Islam or international politics, but he does have plenty of opinions and is not shy about expressing them. He says he's not at all convinced that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the September 11 attacks--he thinks more attention should be paid to the FBI, the Western news media, and the white supremacist movement. Just for the sake of argument, he's willing to momentarily assume that bin Laden was the culprit.

"If this insane, inhuman act was done by these people, there's no way to justify it from any moral point of view, let alone religion and especially Islam," says Sheikh. "Even if you are in a combat situation you are not allowed to kill anybody but the army that's fighting against you. There's a verse in the Koran and the translation goes like this: Killing one innocent person is as if you killed the whole humanity. What you saw on Tuesday has nothing to do with Islam.

"But it might have to do with the feeling of resentment of the people. For example, if the life of the Palestinians is made miserable for 50 years, it's hard for them even to breathe in that part of the land which is their home, and it might give rise to some emotions. I'm not justifying what they did, but I think it goes with human nature. If a strong person grabs somebody who's weak by the neck, at least he's going to move his legs if that's all he can do. And if he can bite you, he will."

In recent days, cars full of noisy, flag-waving young men have shown up on Devon. Sheikh says he hasn't experienced any serious problems. Though he does expect some harassment in the weeks and months to come, he's not worried. "Maybe I've been lucky, but my perception of the society here has been very positive," he says. "I have not experienced any racist attitudes. There has been a little shouting, but that's OK as long as they don't throw stones at the store."

Several blocks east, at the corner of Devon and Seeley, the Ghareeb Nawaz restaurant is festooned with star-spangled banners. Six of them flap in the breeze atop the roof, and two more are fastened to no-parking signs near the entrance. Inside, young adults crowd at the formica tables and wait at the counter for huge three-dollar portions of chicken biryani. On one wall hangs a panoramic photo of the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Mecca surrounded by minarets and crowded with pilgrims; on another hangs a picture of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Behind the counter is a prayer clock exactly like the one in Abdul Sheikh's bookstore. At the front of the restaurant, facing the street, large picture windows are covered with writing in Urdu, which uses the Arabic script. One three-foot-wide windowpane is missing. The autumn breeze blows through the gaping hole ringed with shards of broken glass.

The restaurant's bespectacled proprietor, Sharif Khan, is polite but a bit distracted. He says he's originally from Pakistan and he acquired the restaurant shortly after arriving here six years ago. He doesn't have much to say about his busted window, which he found when he arrived to open the place on Saturday.

"Somebody broke it in the morning," says Khan. "I don't know who. I don't know what they were thinking." He says it's not the first time his windows have been broken; someone tried to rob the place last year. This time, however, nothing was stolen.

"We don't have any problems," he adds quickly. "This is no problem for me. It's gonna be fixed tomorrow morning. So nothing happened, nobody in jail, nothing."

Does he think the window was broken because it was covered with Urdu?

He says he's encountered no such problems in the past. "Here it's very calm," he says.

Is he concerned about the future?

"I don't know the future." Khan shrugs and smiles. "Nobody knows the future, right?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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