Atlantic Cities

For Muslim Taxi Drivers in New York, Ramadan Gets Complicated

For Muslim Taxi Drivers in New York, Ramadan Gets Complicated
Ian Veidenheimer

It's afternoon in downtown Manhattan, and Mohammad "Tipu" Sultan, a 34-year-old taxi driver from Bangladesh, stands by his car at a gas station on the corner of Houston and Broadway. It's one of the city's warmest summer days, and Sultan is carrying a plastic grocery bag filled with about a dozen water bottles. "I'm going to need these soon, after the last prayer, around eight, when I can break it," he says. Sultan is of course referring to the intensified prayer and sunrise-to-sundown fast followed by devout Muslims worldwide during the month of Ramadan, which began July 19 and ends Saturday night. Refueling his car before beginning his 12-hour shift, he points to an empty corner at the back of the station. "Look, they're starting," he says. 

A small group of drivers has parked and unrolled prayer mats. Giant billboards towering overhead, the air filled with incessant honking, and the sidewalk packed with camera-clad tourists, they kneel eastward, praying toward Mecca. "We have until 7:45 or so to make this prayer, the fourth of the day, so people are going to be coming in and out to pray," Sultan explains.

Prayer in front of Ar-Rahman Mosque on 29th Street and Broadway in New York City.

This gas station is just one of hundreds of formal and informal destinations, from mosques to the parking lot of Kennedy Airport, where New York City's Muslim taxi drivers gather to pray five times daily (six during the month of Ramadan). Taj Khan, a Pakistani driver among the worshipers, says, "We work, but we stop, we pray." Another driver from Bangladesh, Akhtar Alam, seconds this. "I stop at whatever mosque falls on my route. I make it work with the system."

Taxi driver Taj Khan shows his prayer mat.

But drivers also say they face additional challenges behind the wheel besides intensified prayer and hours of fasting. According to Bhairvai Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the largest taxi union in the country, taxi drivers are 30 percent more likely to be attacked on the job than any other worker. And when mixed with heightened anti-Islam sentiment in America, the threat to Muslim drivers—who make up over 50 percent of the city's driving community—is even greater. "They see a turban or taqiyah"—the short, rounded cap worn by observant Muslim men—"or read our name, and they think terrorist, terrorist," Sultan says. "Ever since I started driving, in 2002, I always have those passengers who get out and say, 'Go back to your country!' or 'You're a terrorist.'"

Mostly the discrimination is just talk, but sometimes the passengers act.

One night during Ramadan two years ago, Sultan was praying outside of the same downtown gas station when he heard news that would send shivers down the spines of Muslim taxi drivers across the city and beyond. Earlier that evening, Ahmed Sharif, a 44-year-old driver from Bangladesh, had just started his shift and was taking a passenger to 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue. The passenger asked him if he was Muslim and was observing Ramadan. He answered in the affirmative. Moments later, according to a public statement by Sharif, the passenger said, "This is the checkpoint” and “I have to bring you down.” He reached across the plastic partition with a knife, slashed Sharif's throat, and stabbed him repeatedly on his arm, hands, and face. "We heard that the first thing out of Ahmed Sharif's mouth, after he escaped alive, was 'He cut me because I'm a Muslim!'" Sultan says.

Another incident occurred last December, when Egyptian cab driver Mohammad Ammar, 44, was allegedly attacked by William Bryan Jennings, co-director of North American fixed-income capital markets for Morgan Stanley. According to the police report, at the end of a 40-mile drive from Manhattan to Darien, Connecticut, Jennings refused to pay his fare, which led to an argument. Ammar told police the argument ended when Jennings said, “I’m going to kill you. You should go back to your country." Jennings then allegedly pulled out a 2 1/2-inch blade and stabbed him.

This Ramadan, fear of hate crimes is at a new high among Muslims in America. After six Sikh worshippers were killed at a temple in Wisconsin earlier this month in what was seen as an Islamophobic act (turbaned Sikhs, mistaken for Muslims, have been targeted in hate crimes since 9/11), the fear among drivers is tangible. "I let it go when people say things to me in the car," Alam, the Bangladeshi driver, says. He then paused and lowered his voice, "But, still, you never know. People are crazy."

In the midst of this fear, however, the observance of Ramadan can be a unifying force. "The Muslim community today is stronger than I've ever seen it," Sultan says, "If we can't make it to a mosque, we pray on the sidewalk. If the mosque is too crowded, we pray on the street. We aren't afraid to show we are Muslim." Khan agrees. "I don't care where the Imam is from, or where in the city I am," he says. "We are all Muslim. And we are not terrorists."

Prayer in front of Ar-Rahman Mosque on 29th Street and Broadway in New York City.

Sultan says he will probably break his fast at a mosque on 29th Street and Broadway, just a few blocks from where Sharif was attacked. It's highly likely, however, that he ended up praying on the sidewalk. Tiny and half underground, the mosque often attracts as many as 600 worshipers, and is sandwiched between a luxury apartment building, a 17th-century Protestant church, one of New York's trendiest hotels, and a Korean electronics store. Just before eight o'clock, dozens of taxis, "off-duty" lights on, park and further double-park on the block.

Drivers rush out, some with prayer mats and others with unfolded newspapers, and situate themselves on the street. More and more men stream in from around the corner. The imam starts the prayer, the fifth of the day, and about 200 men in the street move in unison.

At the same time, briefcase-toting professionals pass on the sidewalk. Italian tourists drink coffee on the steps of the hotel. Two photographers and a model are engaged in a photo shoot across the street. A group of Orthodox Jewish men walk by. The imam's voice grows louder amid honking traffic. Five minutes later, the prayer is over, the fast can be broken. A horde of men rush to the Halal restaurant upstairs. Others hop back into their taxis and back to their shifts. Abdoulaye, a driver from Senegal, says in French, "We're Americans, too. You see? Watch 'the melting pot.'"

Prayer in front of Ar-Rahman Mosque on 29th Street and Broadway in New York City.

All photos by Ian Veidenheimer.

Emily Gogolak lives in New York City. Her work appears in publications including The New York Observer, Rolling Stone Middle East, GlobalPost, and IHT/Ha'aretz. All posts »

Join the Discussion