NEW YORK – Living in one of the largest ethnically divided cities in the world, Katherine Merriman has been working to unearth the centuries-old history of Islam in New York, through her Muslim history tour in the metropolitan city.
“The response to the tour has been overwhelmingly positive. It attracts people of all ages, of different religions and occupations, bringing together participants who might not otherwise meet,” Merriman, a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Al Arabiya English.
Merriman launched her tour in 2014, which she organizes five times a year. She even started a Facebook event page, called Muslim History Tour NYC.
The tour usually starts from the former site of the African National Memorial Bookstore, where a young Malcolm X read about Africa and the Middle East.
In addition to the tour in Harlem, a new tour is launching in the Wall Street area this fall to talk about the enslavement period of Dutch and British history, which included African Muslims, the Syrian colony of the early 20th century, South Asian and East African British sailors working in the port.
“New Yorkers and tourists love to explore the wealth of culture and history here, but not all stories are shared or preserved equally,” said Merriman.
“Apart from the presence of Malcolm X in the mid-twentieth century, people are not aware of the various ways Muslims have been part of this city from its colonial beginnings in the 1600s.”
According to her, Muslims tell her that they are excited and feel a sense of pride knowing the breadth of different fellow Muslims who have impacted New York City and beyond.
“But the most frequent feedback is the conviction that this history is important and needs greater circulation, to honor these historical communities and push back against xenophobia and racism affecting Muslims and others in the United States,” she said.
According to Merriman, who was Catholic but became curious to learn the background of Islam after the 9/11 attacks, the first Muslims arrival to New York dates back to the 1600s, as slaves.
Then the immigrants’ numbers expanded and according to her website, one of the first registered mosques in New York started in 1907, in Williamsburg, by Muslim Lithuanians, Russians, and Poles.”
“Outside of religious life, Muslims are everyday citizens who work as teachers, musicians, judges, and subway conductors – people who make this city run and flourish,” said Merriman.