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Faith in Irony

A life of contradictions affects one Muslim man’s life


Story by Adam Patterson
Photos courtesy of Allison Sands and Muhaideen Batah

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Batah with a hand-made dresser.

He helped roll up the carpets while the women in the room chased kids who were being too loud. The praying men could not be interrupted by the children. For a few minutes he stood, spoke, and touched his forehead to the ground, and the children fell silent while the room of prayer was packed up and put away.

He walked barefoot down the hall to his office—a small room with a computer sitting on a steel desk. He crossed his legs, straightened his tie, and smiled. His smile remained through his tale of coming to be where he sat, the problems he’s faced, and the solutions that came from the unlikeliest of places. Sitting in a converted recreation center turned place of worship, he talked through his grin when he said he’s a Muslim who is also a carpenter from Nazareth, a job and occupation famously held by Jesus. His life seemed primed for coincidence.

Muhaideen Batah, now a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Vermont, emigrated from Israel to Brooklyn in 1989, pursuing his woodwork as a means of supporting himself. As if chance was his travel partner, some of his “thrones”—elaborate wooden chairs he’s made—have been sat upon by the Pope and are now considered holy.

While in Brooklyn, Batah entered into the Pratt Institute and Parson’s School of Design to study photography, but he regretted attending Pratt in particular. “I learned close to nothing about photography,” Batah says. “What I learned was what I learned at Parson’s, not Pratt.”

"I made it clear I wanted to be in a place that has Muslims and a Mosque."

One day on the subway, a young graduate student noticed Batah wearing his jeans and Yankees hat. His future wife, Anne Bordonaro, remembers Batah admitting he knew nothing about baseball when she enquired about his hat; he thought it just stood for “New York.” “Most guys don’t admit they don’t know anything about baseball,” Bordonaro recalls.

Still living in Brooklyn, and discontent with his career in photography, Batah was heading out to work on his bicycle.  He picked up his helmet and looked at it; it was wet from the rain of the previous day. He didn’t want to be uncomfortable and put the helmet back down without worry. He straddled his seat and began his ride into work.

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Batah continues to work with wood to this day.

Batah turned during a green light, knowing he had the right of way. What he did not know was that a car was making a left and could not see him. He was struck by the car and thrown from his bicycle. After landing on the curb in front of an auto parts store, Batah was hospitalized and slipped into a coma shortly thereafter.

Batah was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, two fractured ribs, two fractures in his left scapula, and one in his skull. While hospitalized, he also got pneumonia. He was admitted for three months, switching between two hospitals until he was released under the condition that he have daily rehab.

Unluckier still for Batah, a side affect of TBI is problems with controlling one’s temper. He wanted to fight anyone for any reason, and his rage was starting to consume his life. Topped with the visceral and hectic experience that is living in New York City,  life became too much—Batah had to get out. His wife had family in Vermont, and when he mentioned moving, they moved toward her family. Batah had conditions about the move: “I made it clear I wanted to be in a place that has Muslims and a Mosque.” He found both just outside of Burlington. “We didn’t know much about the community except that there was a mosque,” Bordonado says.

Batah then became involved with the Islamic Society of Vermont in 1999 and remains a senior member, along with his wife, while others come and go while being associated with IBM or the University of Vermont, says Bordonado.

" ... and since almost nobody wanted to go give talks accept for maybe a couple, I told the president of ISVT I will."

Life again became dramatic after September 11, 2001. After the tragedy, they received threats in person and via phone while working for the society. One woman was followed home by a car, another person left threatening voicemails, and a man pretended to shoot a brother of the Center with his fingers. Through these events, Batah became more and more a part of the center.

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Back in the day.

“The Islamic Society of Vermont got so many calls asking us to send someone to give a talk about Islam… and since almost nobody wanted to go give talks except for maybe a couple, I told the president of ISVT I will,” Batah remembers. “And here I am having the same position (at the time).”

However, friendly hands were extended, even during the recent events of burning Korans during the holy month of Ramadan and the debate raging over whether to build a Mosque near Ground Zero.

“My husband and I were extremely upset to hear about the man in Florida who wanted to burn the Koran, and there were a lot of people in our church who were upset about that,” says Rev. Kathy Eddy, senior Pastor at Bethany Church, United Church of Christ in Randolph, Vt.

“We called Muhaideen and told him our church wanted to make some kind of connection,” Eddy remembers. “He called me at home and we talked a long time, and I just felt so pleased that he was so open to hearing from us and that we were so open to making a connection with him.” Batah then sent pieces of holy scripture to Eddy to be read during worship services. The action received such acclaim that one man from Eddy’s congregation sat down and wrote a $50 check to the ISVT on the spot. “He was so moved,” Eddy says.

Reading from scripture at a service of the Unitarian Church, however, is not a stretch of the imagination. They are open to the merits of all faiths. While some churches have interfaith workshops or services, certain parts remain isolated to members of the faith. For example, Deacon Mark Bennett of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Plattsburgh, says that the Roman Catholic Church may have inter-faith events, but during mass, a time considered a sacrament where Jesus Christ is present, no other words from other faiths are spoken.

Whether or not the power of the gesture is diluted because of the very nature of the Unitarian faith being accepting of all faiths, Batah seems not to notice.“I would love it if more places wanted to do this,” Bordonaro says. “I think it's important.”  Bordonaro says Batah probably isn’t as aware about denominational differences as “you or I,”  but the importance of interfaith communication remains.

 

How do you feel about building a Mosque or Islamic Center by ground Zero?

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