From the wall to the ban, from the volatile street demonstrations to the rabid frenzies of “patriotism” below the Presidential podium--it seems like the resistance to Trump is looking ever-more like a real-life frontline--a war for public space in a country where the very instruments of democracy feel as if they’re coming under siege.
In the midst of this heavy time, a few people sought levity this past weekend, pausing to pray at a moment otherwise seized by the paralysis of terror and deafened by outrage.
Interdisiplinary artists Minoosh Zomorodinia and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reclaimed the Castro for an afternoon public prayer. The event was coordinated as part of the 100 Days of Action--a live art project designed to document and respond to this first stretch of our new political status quo. It could be seen as politically charged, or as serenely apolotical. It was, regardless, a bit of a cultural anomaly in this vibrant hip corner of the city. But like the intricate weaves of the prayer rugs laid between the participants and the ground, they became for a moment part of the urban ethnoscape’s ambient tapestry.
Afterwards, Zomorondinia, who is originally from Iran, reflected on the event, in which a group prayed as pedestrians streamed around them, as a tranquil, distinctly solitary moment.
When I pray I am not aware and conscious to my surroundings; therefore, I don't hear or see much. People who showed up were mostly friends and former classmates. As much as I know people who prayed with us are not strangers. I found the location very friendly and all in peace.
Bhutto, a native of Pakistan, explained the genesis of "Side by Side":
"Side by Side" was a project I had begun in 2014 after seeing a series of hateful bus ads amongst other right wing Islamophobic propaganda. The bus ads had pictures of Isis members and would almost always have the words 'Islamophobia?' and then a small sentence about how Islamophobia was not a real thing and that Muslims and Islam were intrinsically violent.
I thought what better way to confront this bigrotry, even in San Francisco, than by praying randomly in public spaces and with a Muslim woman to elaborate on equality within Islam. We have done the project six times in six different spaces: Washington Square Park, the San Francisco Art Institute, Union Square/Powell and Market, Civic Center and Harvey Milk Plaza.
The title itself, "Side by Side" again talks about unity, we are not only side by side with each other but we hope for the world to join us. In terms of reactions from people, we have had only positive responses and at worst, perhaps,indifference.
In many cities, public prayer is an intensely political act, and in some areas where Muslims face day-to-day hostility from neighbors, it can be viewed as a gesture of defiance, even a threat. There is something undeniably powerful, and performative, about a religious ritual engaging a mass of people in the middle of the public square, particularly in an atmosphere of oppression or struggle. Mosques and churches--or the fraught intersections of the two--are often contested, sometimes militarized spaces. There have been efforts to, for example, bar the most basic forms of Islamic religious expression in public, such as the muezzin or minarets (the sound and sight of a Muslim presence, essentially) in some strictly “secular” (sometimes code for deeply anti-Muslim) societies.
But a rite of prayer in the open, even placed in a political context, does not have to be read as combative. It can be an act of peacemaking, a demonstration of harmony, or an active communion between the internal and external. The emotional and the civic, an interface between the space inside and outside of the social corpus. And in a space often crowded with noise, there’s something profoundly radical about the serenity of a single prayer. And at its core, creating space is what a public prayer is about. Casting yourself to fate and pouring your body and soul into whatever you identify as faith. In politics or spirituality, faith is always something worth holding space for. It’s what makes strangers welcome.
To learn more about 100 Days, see 100daysaction.net.