Behind the Mosque
Imam Abdellah Khidar cultivates the Islamic presence on the Peninsula.
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Gowned women, hair covered by scarves, gather in a room in the basement of a former grange. Each takes off her shoes as soon as she gets inside, leaving them on shelves by the door. The women then move to stand with their toes touching diagonal strips of tape on the floor, which help point their prayers toward Mecca.
From the screen of a vintage television on a low table at the front of the room, Imam Abdellah Khidar begins to chant prayers in Arabic. The men on the screen pray with him; the women, forbidden to pray in the same space, follow suit. At first they stand, then they bow, then they stand, then they kneel, then they touch their foreheads to the ground. Around the women, children play mostly unchecked.
This scene at the Islamic Society of Monterey in Seaside is a unique one on the Peninsula – the only other mosques in the county lie in Salinas and Castroville. At its center, fittingly, stands a unique leader.
Khidar settles into a crouch on the carpet of the mosque. Through a translator, the 36-year-old Morocco native says that he thrives upon the diversity of a congregation that includes Americans, Syrians, Pakistanis, Indians, Moroccans, Iraqis, Indonesians and more.
“In Morocco I make speeches to Moroccans, to the mentality of Moroccans; here I speak to the world,” says Khidar. “I give the same message – the message of God: love each other, live in peace, and do good to human beings, just expressed in different ways.”
Khidar taps a seemingly endless reserve of energy to relay that message. Despite the fact he is not sleeping much because of a newborn son (and two other children under 4), he maintains a nonstop schedule and complete availability – “I am available 24 hours a day,” he says.
The service schedule alone is intense. “I wake up at 5am to pray before going to the mosque to hold 6:30am services,” he says. “I also hold services at 1:30, 4, 6:30 and 8pm.”
Before and after the service Khidar strides around, moving through the congregation, sometimes shaking people’s hands, touching their shoulders, making sure that he speaks to everyone and learns about their various needs.
“Advice is different from one person to another,” he says. “I have to try to live with their problems in order to answer the questions that they have.”
Like all clergy, Khidar’s work extends far beyond his place of worship. For Khidar, however, he has the added challenge of acting as an ambassador of Islam throughout the community. It’s a duty he relishes.
“A lot of people are curious and they ask questions – ‘What is Islam?’ ” he says, “And they want to know the answers. Last month was a holy month and we have seen a lot of people who ask what that involves.”
Over the course of the same month, Khidar says four local individuals chose to convert to Islam after attending services and question and answer sessions.
“I used to have a class for them every Tuesday, but now I stopped because I’ve become very busy,” says Khidar. “We talk about, ‘What are the steps to become a Muslim? What do I believe?’ ”
Khidar and the Islamic Society have made it a priority to maintain a welcoming presence to anyone with questions – and have also made it a priority to, as Khidar says, “work with Christian and Jewish communities to create and find ways of building peace between peoples.” An extensive lecture schedule has taken members of the mosque to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey Peninsula College, CSU Monterey Bay, Hartnell and a range of local high schools.
One of the stereotypes Khidar enjoys deconstructing along the way is that a Muslim’s life is necessarily regimented and strict.
“Even though Muslims follow rules and have strong morals, it doesn’t mean [Muslims] can’t have a sense of humor,” he says, a smile creasing the corners of his mouth. “We play games like tennis and soccer. We just went to Yosemite for three days.”
The constant interaction with the community has helped Khidar find solidarity with people of all faiths, a particularly inspiring accomplishment in the context of a country where, according to an August study by the Pew Charitable Forum on Religion and Public Life, 35 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Muslims. Khidar doesn’t see that locally.
“I’ve seen no [discrimination],” he says. “No problems at all. This is a very beautiful community.”