Jihad Bitar

Ph.D., Urban Design

One sunny day in mid-September of the year 1998, after a 5 hour night drive I arrived to New York city for the first time. I remember crossing the Brooklyn bridge heading to Manhattan and being amazed by that bridge thinking of the time they built it and how much effort and science was involved. I remember the first hours of my visit, being tiered, excited and critical of everything I see in the ‘big apple’, but I had my reasons for that; some time before visiting New York I was in Chicago, I was still under the spell of Chicago’s architectural beauty and wonders. Chicago reminded me of Damascus in the sense that you see history in those two cities, you don’t need to read a book, you will see, smell, hear and touch history there, the art and architectural wonders of Chicago and the centuries-old monumental buildings and traditions of Damascus. In that context my first impression of New York’s architecture and public art was plain, and it stayed like that until I had my rest and started to discover the true nature of this great American city.

Walking in the streets of New York and looking at its somehow formal buildings made me realize that New York is an honest city; honest because it builds itself and reflects its nature without any unnecessary beautification or the need to hide anything. I discovered that when I moved my eyes away from examining its building toward the people of New York, yes, the people of new York are the true gems of this city, not only the beauty of the Empire State, the shine of Chrysler building’s top, the flatiron building elegant,  or the masterpiece of New York Library nor the importance of the Metropolitan or the  Guggenheim museums, or the greenery of Central Park, it’s New Yorkers who made the difference and who are the key of that city

New York has more languages, more faces, more races, more music and colors, and more cultures than you can see or visit in your life time, yet all of them work, live and love together

While there I noticed many cab drivers wearing the unique East Indian turbans, I looked at my second generation American Syrian relative and asked him “why don’t they change and be like everybody here, take off the turban”. He replied: “This is America, you come here, you bring your culture to enrich the existing one, otherwise we will all become one taste and lose the richness of our world” at that moment I didn’t understanding what he said, I ridiculed him and kept eating my pizza, thinking back, after all these years I now noticed the message in his reply, Yes, we can’t afford to change and look alike when we immigrate, we can change if we want but it would be fake of us, yes we need to be civilized, we need to integrate, we need to learn to communicate, we need to learn the culture of discussion, the culture of disagreeing without the need to destroy our opponents, unfortunately some of us don’t know that because we grow up in a culture of two extremes, the religious obeying and the authoritarian regimes that build up our characters and made us either submissive or blindly rebellions.

Another day in the streets of New York, a handicapped man who lost his legs jaywalking on his wheel chair, again, I turned to my relative telling him about this major violation of the red light, smiling he said “what worse can happen to him!” again at that time I didn’t get it.

I know many readers will say, what are the moral, and why do we need to care about all these side stories of my mumbling, and how is that related to building a mosque near ground zero?

Connect the dots my friends to see the image I’m drawing to you:

Renovating an existing building to become an iconic, architecturally, environmentally and morally high Islamic Centre in New York near ground zero is a necessity that will add to this already great city called New York yet another master piece that will enrich its already beautiful mosaic fabrics.

History is meant to be understood, and not only to be read. We have a great example in our history of how in the middle of cultural clashes a new beauty comes to life and enriches our art and architectural landscape forever; I’m referring to Spain and specifically, Alhambra, Granada, where a unique new dematerialized architecture, an architecture of illusion and insubstantiality was born that made a strong contrast to the simple unornamented abstract architecture and puritanical white wash of the Muslim north African architecture as well as the opposite to the gothic architecture of the Christian Europe forever.

How a dream world of water and webs of ornaments, a dream world of floors of marble, ceilings of gold and walls covered with geometric refraction of tile changed our world more than 600 years ago? The answer is the Arab craftsmen who stayed in Spain, they used their art, techniques and vision in their works in Churches, Synagogues and Palaces to give the world a great message that beauty can exist and flourish even in the most hostile environment of all.

Making places for ‘the other’ is the unique signature of the US and North America, its strength and wisdom come from its diversity and that is what makes this nation grow and stay and it’s the destiny and duty of every Arab and Muslim- American to show the true beautiful face of our Arab and Muslim world, our culture, our arts, our passions, and our believes. We are part of this world and we have to work together with everybody regardless of their race, religion and gender to build a better future.

“what worse can happen to him!” these times are our worst as Arabs and Muslims alike, we hit the bottom in many fields, our science doesn’t exist, Philosophy is just a word that we don’t understand, Islam became the mat for every radical to use and blame on his/her behaviour, “what worse can happen to us, if we build a mosque near ground zero and try to start a new teaching of our true religion instead of letting the radicals hijack it from us, we need to speak out loud and this is the time, there is no lower stage of what we are at today, we need to clean the Islam face from all those who manipulate it we must make it shine again with our behaviours.

There is no better time than now to build the dream, to build the bridge between us all. It’s the beginning of a better future with no place for any radicals to exist among us, Arabs, Muslims and Americans.

Jihad Bitar is a Project Manager. He has a Ph.D in City Planning and Urban Design from Kyushu University, Japan B.Sc in Architecture, Damascus University, Syria