The makeshift mosque was at once sweet and sinister. As befit a creation of a couple of first-graders, it was a riot of colors and flags and self-portraits and doodles. The base was made of two shoeboxes, one set slightly behind the other to give the feeling of depth. Perched atop the base was the dome, actually a beach ball adorned with colored tissue paper, giving the illusion of a tiled mosaic.
Poking out from the top of the dome was a flag with the word “Mosque” written on it. And as a decorative touch, drawn right over the “o” was a star.
A Star of David.
Our daughter had been secretive about the architecture project at school. During the school year her class had been to the bus depot and the firehouse and the bank, in a unit on “community,” where they learned about the fabric of their Manhattan neighborhood, Yorkville.
But the new project and accompanying field trip was different: an architectural tour of the neighborhood led by a docent from the Center for Architecture in the Village. I signed up to chaperone.
Before the tour began the kids got a crash course in the architectural features of their cityscape. First, the simple stuff: apartment buildings, balconies, row houses. Then, more complex features: bay windows, arches, columns, cornices. Armed with clipboards and a handout with drawings of the features — the kids were to check off the ones they spotted — we hit the streets on a sultry June morning.
The first stop was the corner of 96th and Third Avenue. There, catty-cornered from the school, was city’s largest mosque. With a little prompting from the docent the kids realized that it didn’t show its face to the street straight on; it sat on an angle, with its tall minaret tucked into the corner of the lot and the dome rising elegantly in the middle.
There was some talk that the building was angled toward the holy city of Mecca, but not all the kids took it in, and soon our party was heading west on 96th Street toward Lexington. “Wrought iron,” one kid shouted out, checking off the feature on the handout. “Keystone,” said another. “Fan light,” said a third. Then stately Park Avenue yielded up its magic: Corinthian columns, oculus windows, pediments.
Before heading back east on 95th Street we all peeked across Park toward the castle-like structure that is Hunter College High School. “Turrets,” nearly all the kids shouted at once. Rapunzel could have hung her hair down for some handsome prince, right there on Park Avenue.
Soon, parents were summoned to school for an architecture fair. The first-graders, working in pairs, had picked a building they saw on the tour and constructed it. There were cardboard row houses, with windows that opened and shut; high-rise apartment buildings that pushed skyward; shed-like markets selling fruits and vegetables.
And then, on a table in the front of the classroom, stood the mosque. A dad, his digital camera trained on the quirky house of worship, pointed out the Jewish star that flew proudly from the flag jutting up from the dome. He joked: “The photo will be posted on YouTube, fly around the Internet, be picked up by Al Jazeera, get beamed across the Arab world with the headline ‘Jewish conspiracy to control New York mosques,’ and in two days there’ll be protests at the school.” He laughed but it was strained; maybe the joke wasn’t such a joke.
I tried to laugh but couldn’t. I think I managed a clenched smile, but as far-fetched as it was the joke hit too close to home. The mosque was the work of my daughter and her partner.
My anxiety (paranoia?) only deepened when I learned that the Center for Architecture was going to mount an exhibition based on the kids’ work. About a dozen public schools citywide took part in the project, with first graders through high schoolers crafting their creations, and a handful from the hundreds submitted would be chosen. What were the chances of the mosque with the Jewish star going public in a show thousands of New Yorkers would see?
And yet, wasn’t there something irresistible about it, the combination of innocence and post-9/11 scary, a beautiful, childlike ecumenism set against a chilling, “new normal” reality? I thought of the Mohammed cartoons, of Ahmadinejad. My chest tightened.
When the exhibition opened, there was the mosque hanging alongside the fanciful constructions of dozens of city school kids. The Jewish star atop the mosque was “a cool touch, very inclusionary,” said the Center.
The show stayed up for six weeks. No protests. No Al Jazeera. No Zionist conspiracy. A bullet dodged. When I called to find out what would happen to the works, the Center told me they wanted to keep a few pieces for a fundraiser that fall. They wanted the mosque with the Jewish star. I thought of Rushdie and the fatwa. My stomach churned.
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