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Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Film row faint in NZ Muslims' ears

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Parking congestion at mosque more pressing issue than conflagration over clumsy anti-Islamic production

The Mosque at Stoddard Rd, Mt Roskill, is one of 27 in the Auckland region. Picture / Brett Phibbs
The Mosque at Stoddard Rd, Mt Roskill, is one of 27 in the Auckland region. Picture / Brett Phibbs

By 12.40pm, the start time of Friday prayers, the carpark at the Masjid-e-Umar in Mt Roskill is gridlocked. The cars are wedged, bumper to bumper, into every available space. No one will be leaving until everybody leaves.

Mohamed Moses is not amused. One of the trustees of the mosque, he describes himself, when I ask his official title, as "the man who mows the lawns". But he clearly carries some weight, because it's he who is up front as the men arrive, in a trickle that becomes a steady flow. He's reading the notices, most of which consist of laying down the law about parking.

"There are 64 spaces," he says, struggling to keep the exasperation out of his voice. "That means 64 cars - not 65." I look out the window and wonder why he doesn't say, "and not 107".

"I do it every week," he will tell me later, rolling his eyes. "No one ever listens."

It was the voluble and friendly Moses, New Zealand-born of Gujarati parentage, who welcomed my approach when I rang to ask about coming along to Friday prayers.

As the Muslim world burns, sometimes literally, with rage at a shonky American-made anti-Islam online film and some offensive French cartoons, I was curious to feel the pulse of the local Muslim community.

"You're welcome any time," he said, though he was understandably wary of being drawn into a conflagration whose flames have licked at Sydney and Melbourne but not touched here.

A former Samoan Congregational church, the Masjid-e-Umar in Stoddard Rd is in a part of town that could easily pass for South Asia or the Middle East. There are more headscarves than hoodies on the streets, the butchers are halal and the posters in the beauty parlour are Bollywood-gaudy. This is the area with the highest concentration of Muslims in New Zealand; real estate advertisements often mention the proximity to the mosque.

Friday is the holiest day of the Muslim week and Friday prayer, known as jumma, is the peak moment of the Muslim's weekly worship. Technically, it's obligatory for all men to attend, and, Moses tells me, more than 80 per cent will show up at one of the 27 mosques in the Auckland region. He finds me a chair and parks me at the back, where I watch the huge main room steadily fill with new arrivals, their hair and beards still glistening with water droplets after the ritual ablution of face, hands and feet that precedes prayer. Most acknowledge my presence with a nod, many with a wide smile. If any feel dismay at the presence of the Celtic stranger with a notebook, they disguise it well.

As fans churn the chill air, the sing-song voice of imam Molana Mohmed Suleman Patel intones a sermon in Urdu. (There are 41 nationalities in the congregation here, though Indians are by far the largest group, and few have mastered the Arabic of the Koran).

At last, the keening wail of the muezzin, who spares the neighbourhood by staying inside the mosque, signals the start of prayer. The effect is electric: men who have been lounging round the walls or standing in individual contemplation suddenly form shoulder-to-shoulder rows, along the lines in the carpet that ensure they face Mecca.

As they prostrate in unison, one tiny boy climbs on his father's back in happy mischief.

In a few minutes, it is over and the men disperse to their lives and jobs. One, named Faisal, stops to ask what I'm doing. He speaks sadly of the now-notorious insults to "the beloved Prophet" - but more sadly still of the overblown reaction of protesters.

"We should have compassion for the ignorance of these people," he says referring to the film-makers and cartoonists. "People try and make it an anti-American thing but it's not about America; there are many good Muslims in America."

I ask why we never see protests here. The Muslim community here is small, Moses explains, and it is bound by religion but not nationalistic fervour. "The cultures are different and people have their own culture. We live in harmony here."

The last of the men are leaving the mosque now and the carpark is almost clear. One approaches with a sheepish smile and asks me if I need a ride.

"I'm sorted, thanks," I tell him, touched by his kindness. He bows slightly.

"That's all right," he says. "I'm a taxi driver." Prayers are over but life goes on.

- NZ Herald

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