It was hard to miss the fact that mine was the only car on the lot. I took notice of the lot, which was a uniform black and crisply lined in bright yellow.
If I was to judge, I would say the parking lot to The Islamic Association of West Virginia, in South Charleston, was maybe the most aesthetically pleasing lot in the greater Charleston area — and I felt weird, out of place, but also very glad.
This was finally happening — if anybody showed up.
Not long after I began One Month at a Time in 2016, I started getting suggestions for topics to explore. I got a bunch of good ones and a few that were just impossible.
While I can spend a month taking flying lessons and sort of learn how to fly or study dance steps and sort of perform with the ballet, I can’t spend a month as a woman (biology), a gay man (again, biology) or as someone of a different race (biology and history, for starters).
I also can’t convert to a particular faith for only a month. That’s disrespectful and blasphemous all around.
But I can learn a little about the culture and maybe experience that.
For a long time, I’ve been curious about Muslims in America.
According to Wikipedia, Islam (1.8 billion followers) is the second largest religion in the world, next to Christianity (2.4 billion).
In case anyone was wondering, third place goes to the roughly 1.3 billion people who have no religion at all. This group includes atheists, agnostics and people who mow their lawns at 7:30 on a Sunday morning.
Fourth belongs to the Hindus, with about 1.25 billion adherents, followed by Buddhists with 500 million practitioners.
Judaism comes in with about 17 million believers, though they seem to catch more blame than all the others combined.
My curiosity about Muslims goes back to when I was a 17-year-old high school kid washing dishes at a steakhouse half a mile from the main campus of Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia.
I was from Pearisburg, about a half-hour away, a little factory town that was overwhelmingly white, conservative and Christian.
There were easily a dozen churches in Pearisburg, but just a single bar that was within spitting distance of the local police station.
During an otherwise uneventful shift at the steakhouse one night, I remember standing by the order out window talking with David, the red-haired assistant manager of the restaurant.
David was maybe a year older than me and we’d been talking about colleges. He was headed to Virginia Military Institute in the fall. I’d inexplicably been accepted to East Tennessee State University and was explaining that I hadn’t applied, but that my guidance counselor said it wasn’t a bad place to go, if I was interested in media.
I’d been desperate to get out of Giles County, Virginia.
At the time, my stated career goal had been to go to college and learn to be a writer. From there, I was supposed to move to New York, Chicago or maybe Atlanta, where I would embark on a career as a best-selling novelist.
It seemed like a good field to get into. The money looked really great, and you got to set your own hours.
I expected to get started on that maybe before I finished my second year.
Dave probably rolled his eyes. As we were talking, I watched a group of dark-haired, dark-eyed, and very foreign-looking young men come through the front door.
Virginia Tech attracted a lot of international students who came to study one kind of engineering or another.
The men were laughing and talking loudly in a language not taught at my high school. I recognized them as being Middle Eastern, which didn’t necessarily mean Muslim. To a high school kid with a mullet and an oh-so-rebellious earring in his left ear, it was close enough.
Off-handedly, I remember saying that the men made me uneasy.
Dave looked at me, dumbfounded.
“Why?” He asked and laughed.
I shrugged. Because.
Dave waited a beat, as if he needed a moment to phrase what he needed to say. Then spoke very slowly, so that I would take that he was telling me something important, but also very obvious.
“Any city you move to is going to have people that look and think differently than you do. You know that, right?” he said. “They’re just students.”
Of course, I did. But probably, not really.
Through a good portion of my life I didn’t really know many people who weren’t a lot like me.
Most of the people I worked with over the years were largely white, of European stock, and more or less identified as some kind of Christian.
I’ve worked with more people who put stock in salt lamps, essential oils and the relative position of the planet Mercury than who go to synagogue or who are Black.
My private life hasn’t been much better, though the pool of people I know since I moved to Charleston is much broader.
The first Muslim I actually knew on a first-name basis was Charlie Tee, the regular lead singer of Charleston’s gospel/blues/rock band, The Carpenter Ants.
Charlie mentioned his faith while I was interviewing the group for one of my arts and entertainment articles.
At the time, it seemed pretty unusual that someone with Charlie’s religious affiliation would be in a bar band who is maybe best known for the “Sausage Song [Why Buy the Hog when the Sausage is Free],” a funny romp of a song with a bit of a double entendre.
With as little exposure to Islam as I’d had, even I knew that adherent Muslims do not eat pork, they don’t drink alcohol and I could not imagine them stepping inside a bar.
I understood Muslims to be as socially conservative as half the Southern Baptists I’d sat next to in church, minus any restrictions on eating.
But the Carpenter Ants were a pretty unusual bunch.
They’re still a pretty unusual bunch, but I hadn’t really thought too much about Charlie or Islam until after COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s life and upended my plans for the summer. With social distancing and concerns about the virus, a lot of my earlier topics became difficult to advance. Out of desperation, I called out for help on Facebook.
As usual, I got a lot of input — some good, some not as good, some a little weird.
But Charlie’s wife, Lynn Rousseau, suggested Islam and volunteered her husband to help me meet some people at the mosque, including the new Imam.
That sounded pretty good, better than subjecting myself to a raw food diet (option number two).
The next morning, I got an unrelated message from Ibtesam Barazi at the Islamic Association. She said they were getting smeared on a local radio show and wondered if I wanted to write about that.
Over the past year, religion has interested me a lot. In recent months, I’ve bored anyone unlucky enough to trigger the conversation that I’ve been reading the Bible from cover to cover (as of this writing, I’m up to Psalms 70).
I took the two connections as a sign and said “yes” to Lynn. We arranged for me to meet Charlie a few minutes before Friday services at the mosque.
I was early, for once, and wondered what I’d do if Charlie didn’t show.