Arab-American community leader thrives in Washington neighbourhood

Sunday 31/07/2016
Mohammed Mobaidin at the door of the masjid, at Washington’s Ivy City neighbourhood.

Washington - In Washington’s Ivy City neigh­bourhood, drug-related vio­lence and prostitution were so endemic that even the police stayed away. Now, it is one of Washington’s hottest areas with a panache for night life.

With that transition has come many contradictions, among the most glaring of which is a masjid that sits next to a medical marijua­na dispensary, surrounded by gin and whiskey distilleries.

Mohammed Mobaidin, the founder and director of the masjid, immigrated from Jordan in 1977 and has been one of the main fix­tures in Ivy City for 25 years.

“In 1992, when I first came to Ivy City, most houses were boarded up. Lots of people lived as squat­ters,” he said at the Ivy City Smoke­house, a restaurant specialising in smoked fish. From our table by the window we could see the masjid, a humble street-level prayer room with boarding rooms on the second floor.

“Actually, the masjid used to be a convenience store. In 1972, a cou­ple of guys robbed and killed the clerk,” said Mobaidin. The build­ing was vacant until its owner, a Jewish man, sold it to Mobaidin in 1997. Two years later, he turned it into a masjid.

The first property Mobaidin owned in Ivy City was a conveni­ence store that he operated despite the violence in the neighbourhood. One day, a man walked in and begged Mobaidin to buy his home from him.

“He had come to check on his house and, as soon as he en­tered, squatters started shooting at him. So he ran to me and said, ‘Please buy my house.’ So I did. For $6,000,” recalled Mobaidin.

Mobaidin bought other proper­ties and soon owned more than two dozen units in nine separate properties. He estimates the value of his real estate holdings in Ivy City at about $3 million.

Mobaidin is a serial entrepre­neur, a pillar in a once impover­ished community, a mystic and something of an inadvertent Mus­lim missionary, transcending the structural racism that contributes to high black poverty and ghet­toisation in many American cities. In many ways, Mobaidin’s story is quintessentially American.

Among the businesses that he has owned and operated in Ivy City over the years were a taxi company, a mechanic shop and a laundromat.

“The police used to wonder how I stayed safe,” he said, laughing. “Almost every store got robbed and all the owners had bulletproof glass, except me. I said if I need bulletproof glass, then I don’t need to be here.”

The police became so convinced that Mobaidin’s store would be robbed that they staked it out, hid­ing in wait for the inevitable rob­bery but the robbers never came.

“The reason, believe it or not, is that the neighbourhood kids as soon as they heard someone was going to do something to me, they’d run to my defence. They knew me. I cashed cheques for their grandmothers and ran store credit for them when no one else did,” said Mobaidin.

Once, a drug addict tried to sell him jewellery so she could buy drugs. Mobaidin took the jewellery and gave her $25 but he stored the jewellery in a safe hoping she or someone from her family would return for it. A few weeks later, her mother was delighted to learn that he had kept the jewellery.

“I gave it all back to her for $25. It was these things that built trust and respect between me and the community,” he said.

In the 1800s, Ivy City served as a stop on the “underground rail­road”, a network of secret escape routes used by African Americans escaping slavery in the south. Ivy City became home to many freed slaves and it thrived in the 1940s as the war economy generated jobs. In the ensuing decades, Ivy City found itself serving as the city’s trash dump and incinerator. Many of its residents left and drug deal­ers moved in.

Shortly after Mobaidin moved to Ivy City he experienced what he in­terpreted as a sign from God. A fel­low Arab American came to Mobai­din’s mechanic shop for service. The stranger suggested that Mobai­din build a masjid, an idea that Mobaidin first had when he was a boy attending a relative’s funeral at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

“So we drove around and he said: ‘Stop. Here’s your masjid.’ There were prostitutes and crack dealers; water running everywhere,” re­called Mobaidin. “But I built it. And believe it or not, when we were tearing down the ceiling something fell on my head. It was silver coins,” he said.

Today, developers envision Ivy City becoming like New Orleans with its lively nightclubs and bars but Mohaidin does not mind.

“Besides worshipping Allah, I want to show America that Mus­lims are not what you think,” he said. Then he cracks a laugh and adds: “I’m afraid Ivy City is going to be a second sin city in America, but I’ll still have a mosque here.”