A close encounter with a mosque


The abundant insanity (that’s what it is – insanity) around the proposed (and approved) Islamic Center in lower Manhattan caused me to revisit a significant time in my youth.

In the summer of 1953 I was about to enter 8th grade. We had moved to the tiny village of Ross, North Dakota, hardly even a wide spot in the road between Minot and Williston; on the main line of the extremely busy Great Northern Railroad.

This was the first oil boom in the Williston Basin and housing was at a premium. I was the oldest of five kids, and the only housing for our parents was next door to the school in which they both taught. The “teacherage,” as such buildings were called, had two rooms and a kitchen. As I recall, we showered in the basement of the school building, and that was where the telephone was. Our conditions were primitive.

But 1953-54 was a rich one for me. Among other happenings was meeting a farm kid whose name was Emmett. Emmett and I became friends as kids do, and while I don’t recall that we spent a lot of time together I have kept in contact with him to this day, 57 years later.

One time during that year I was invited out to Emmet’s home in the country. I rode my bike out there, met his parents and his sisters and brother, had supper, saw the barn and the horses, and went home. Driving down that dirt road seemed like a long trip then, but three years ago I revisited the town and the now deserted farm, and it was perhaps two or three miles at most from my home to his.

Emmett was a little darker complected than I with somewhat different facial features than most North Dakota country folks. I might have known then that he and many families around the town were of Syrian ancestry, but it really never registered with me – it wasn’t important.

Similarly, at some point somebody must have told me that these Syrian folks with unusual names were “Mohammedans,” but I don’t remember who, or when, that might have been.

We moved on after a single year in that tiny town and went somewhere else.

It was years later that I came to learn that along that country rode I’d biked sometime in 1953-54 was probably the first mosque in the United States of America; and later still that someone – probably Emmett – told me that his mom (both parents and the current mosque are pictured at the referenced website) was one of the key persons in keeping the Moslem faith alive in outback North Dakota.

Dad was the superintendent of the tiny school at Ross, and he tended to keep records for posterity. In his papers I came across the attendance records for the Ross school in the year I was there. Typewritten on the roster was the name of my friend, Emmett ____. Handwritten to the left of Emmett’s name was “Muhammad. Emmet’s true given name. Even then, perhaps, there was no desire to raise any unnecessary “red flags.”

I visited the Ross mosque and the cemetery in the summer of 2007. I recognized many last names and it was an emotional experience for me.

The first mosque near Ross, ND from Plains Folk, North Dakota’s Ethnic History, Playford Thorson, ND Institute for Regional Studies 1988, p. 360

Intolerance is one of our many inheritances in this country.

I hope that the powers that be do not cave in to intolerance in New York City or anywhere else.

Ross ND High School Graduate 1954