The sun was rising in Harlem as dozens of Senegalese cabbies got out of the Masjid Aqsa mosque after their first prayer of the day. The night-shifters and the day-shifters exchanged their car keys, and little by little, the double-parked cabs dispersed in the quiet dawn.
“Fajr,” at 5:43 a.m., is the first of five prayers that punctuate the day for the Muslim cab drivers. On this day, it was followed by four others at 12:45 p.m., 3:59 p.m., 6:32 p.m. and 7:47 p.m. – times that change everyday according to the sun’s position.
It is not an easy prayer schedule to keep for a Manhattan taxi driver. Senegalese cabbies who are resolved to praying five times a day face a litany of obstacles. Stopping even for a few minutes cuts into their earnings, and they are often forced to double-park outside mosques, exposing them to expensive parking tickets. Some mosques have gone so far as to petition the NYPD to give the cab drivers a break, but the risks still remain outside several mosques across the city.
Amar, 50, who asked to be identified by his first name, works as a yellow cab on the night shift. Before coming to the mosque for the early-morning service, he put on a long purple African robe over his pair of blue jeans and T-shirt.
“We don’t care [about] the job!” he said.
“If you don’t [pray], you gonna feel it inside,” Amar added, putting his two hands on his chest to signal he was referring to prayer. “Feel it in your heart.”
Amar has been praying five times a day since he was a young boy. These daily prayers are part of the five pillars of Islam. A strict Muslim has to unroll a prayer rug, kneel on it and bow in the direction of Mecca.
A New Yorker for 20 years, Amar said he knows “every mosque in the city,” listing the ones he has been to in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Apart from John F. Kennedy and La Guardia airports, there are no specific prayer rooms dedicated to Muslim cab drivers in the city. Every cabbie has his own preferred places, from gas stations, restaurant basements, gypsy taxi stands to the mere sidewalk.
Most of the time, the Senegalese drivers go off duty before the given times of prayer and pull over at the nearest mosque. Yet, these regular stops can have a real impact on the money they make.
Parking isn’t really an option because it is too expensive, said Fallou Diakhumpa, a 50-year-old Senegalese yellow cab driver.
“Thirty dollars, that is not fair just to park your car for five minutes!” he said.
So, like many others, Diakhumpa usually double-parks his cab, especially downtown, where it is harder to find a parking space. But this has its risks. Within just a five-minute span, he can get a $150 ticket.
“It happens all the time, and it happened to me!” Diakhumpa said. “You lose money, but you have to do what you have to do!”
Around the Masjid Aqsa mosque on Frederick Douglas Boulevard and West 116th Street, there are up to four taxi companies.
“Cab drivers come more than the others,” said Imam Souleimane Konaté, 55, the leader and co-founder of the mosque.
The five prayers are Muslim obligations, Konaté said. As a leader of the mosque since 1995, he has worked hard to facilitate access for the cabbies so they don’t have to worry about getting tickets
“We have built strong relationships with the police,” Konaté said. “With their permission, the cab drivers are allowed to double-park at prayer times.”
Not all the mosques can do this, he added. But the Masjid Mosque has had a very good working relationship with the authorities. He said that if a driver does get a fine in front of the mosque during prayer time, he can get it dismissed.
On a recent day, it was almost 6:30 a.m. when the mosque closed its doors, until the next prayer. As the sun went up, Hassan, a 50-year-old Senegalese driver who would only give his first name, started his shift in his yellow cab. He headed downtown.
As much as he would like to pray five times a day, “it is too busy,” he said.
“Because if I do that I cannot work.”
So he prays at dawn, before the start of his shift. Then, if he doesn’t have a chance to stop during the day, Hassan said he goes home and prays “all four of them together.”
Eleonore Hamelin: A smartphone rings in the cab of Bassirou, who wouldn’t give his last name. The ringtone is a recording of the Muslim call to prayer.
Ambience: Muslim prayer on iPhone
Hamelin: Bassirou is Senegalese and he is also Muslim. He uses this app to give him the exact hours for each different prayer, five times a day. The times change every day according to the sun’s position.
Bassirou: “The sun rises, 6:45, like Doha, 12:46, Ashar, this 4:03, Mahid, 6:37, Esai, 7:52.”
Hamelin: It is not an easy praying schedule to keep for a Manhattan cabdriver. Bassirou works up to 12 hours a day. To pray, he has to stop his cab and pull over wherever he is. A strict Muslim has to unroll a prayer rug, kneel on it and bow in the direction of Mecca. Babacar Mbaye is also Senegalese. He has been a cabdriver for 24 years. He sometimes misses the prayer, but says it is possible to make it up:
Babacar Mbaye: “You don’t know what time you gonna be somewhere. Because the customer is always right, you know. So sometimes, if you are too busy to pray, you go home and you pray everything together.”
Hamelin: Mbaye’s taxi company is located on Saint Nicholas and 121st street. Inside there is a prayer room of the size of a small bedroom. The floor is covered with ten colorful carpets. Most of the drivers just drop by to pray here, or at a nearby mosque. But in the city, parking is expensive. Fallou Diakhumpa says he doesn’t want to pay 30 dollars to park for a five-minute prayer. The only other option is to double-park…
Fallou Diakhumpa: “That’s not fair. You leave your car for 5 minutes when you come back you have a ticket, the ticket cost you 150 dollars. You lose money but you have to do what you have to do.”
Ambience: rain and cars
Hamelin: Outside the taxi office, the rain is pouring down. Another driver heads back to his car to start his shift. He says if he needed to, he could pray right here, on the sidewalk and under the rain. He says there are only 5 times a day when he can speak with God, and it is the least he can do. Eleonore Hamelin, Faith in the City.