Black Male Elder Recognition Project
The man I have interviewed was former Imam( Priest) at Masjid Al Aqaba, located Down Town. Brother Ali Umar is a mixed man, of African American and Native American decent, who was born in New York City, New York. I started the interview by asking where he was born, and how long he lived there.
Ali: I was born in New York City, New York on June 23rd 1947. I lived there all of my life, except during the summer. Summer time I spent in North Carolina with my grandmother. When school went out spent the summer with my relatives. My mother was Native American and Cherokee, so we stayed till Labor Day every year till I was 13 years old. At that point my mother couldn’t get me to go any more— it just wasn’t happening, all that work. But I really liked being there, it was a peaceful place and that’s one of the reasons I decided to move to the Foothills.
Amanee: So what made you move to the foothills?
Ali: A friend of mine had bought some land and asked if I wanted a piece. Of coarse I said yes. I loved the days on the countryside—it was peaceful. If you want peace you have to know what peace is. And that was the type of place I wanted my kids to experience. So I moved there in 1989
Amanee: And how many kids do you have
Ali: I have 9 beautiful children, all grown now and in college, married and having kids.
Amanee: Alright, so back tracking..Where did you go to school?
Ali: I went to school at City University of New York and got my Bachelors Degree in Interdepartmental studies in 1975—which was 1o years after I had started. I had 3 children along the way with my ex-wife. See back then we had the option to specialize in Interdepartmental studies. I graduated in the lat year that college was free. Everyone was like “go to college, get a degree” and interdepartmental studies was something that I could do.
Amanee: So when did you meet your wife:
Ali: I met her in Madina. I actually spent 10 years in the Middle East. I was introduced to her in Madina, her mother suggested I meet her over tea. I went there in 1975 after I graduated. I had became Muslim in 1972, went to perform Ahjj in 1973, and then came back to finish school. When I graduated I took my 3 kids—from my non-Muslim ex wife—with me because I really wanted to raise them as Muslims. So yeah, I took em for 10 years. Me and my ex had a different opinion on how we wanted to raise the kids and this was my opportunity. When we were married I was catholic, born catholic. I converted to Islam in 1972.
Amanee: How did you become interested in The Religion?
Ali: Well, I was used to be catholic and was an altar boy. I was going to be a priest someday, that was the plan. But when my relationship fell apart with my ex, I looked to religion for answers, but i didn’t get any type of relief. So I became agnostic, you know, “I there’s a god then save ,my soul”, this was while I was in college. I had actually gone and changed my name to my Muslim name so that I could graduate with it. I had to go back to my high school and do all that paperwork. Well anyway while I was agnostic, I used to sit at a table…you know how in the cafeteria every group kind of sits at their own table. And I would go to each and ask what religion they are and why, and what not. I debated with them…and I did this for a bout 4 years (giggles) and at some point Allah touched my heart. I used to do drugs, drink, anything that was illegal I tried it. That was my way of coping with the pain. But I realized that after it all the pain was still there. So I stopped all of that and decided that if vacuum cleaners come with a set of instructions then mankind should, too. So I went to visit all the different churches and went to libraries to research. And I had criteria: the religion would be a guide that should cover from before birth till I die. And one day a girl came to me asking if I was still looking for that religion. And I told her yeah! And she told me to check out the tea shop around the corner because some Muslims had a table. They had books and asked if I had any questions, but I told them, no I can read. I didn’t want to be influenced by opinions, just facts. After reading I decided that this was it, and took my Shahada (declaring your faith) in 1972 and have been satisfied ever since. As I said, I changed my name to graduate with my Muslim name, and after that I went to the Middle East.
Amanee: And what did you do there?
Ali: In the Middle East I was an analyst programmer, and was a translator for Al Qudda University, Which was only 30 minutes away from Mecca, and I wanted to live in Mecca. Things ended up working out perfectly because my co-worker, Sammy, and I didn’t get along. He was trained in America and had got a bad impression of how Americans treated Blacks. He was rich, of upper class and Ran the Hajj Resource Center. Eventually Tunnels were made for a quicker pilgrimage and I and Sammy got into it and I was transferred to Mecca and worked at the University there. Then moved to Sudan and worked as a sugar refinery for 3 years. Then I moved to Saudi Arabia for 3 years and worked in the Airlines there. I came back to the US in 1985 and when to LA, because I had friends that lived there. Because when you work for an airline you can travel for free—I don’t know if it’s the same still. SO I went back there for some time. And at this time I had 4 kids, and wanted to live in the East coast. I didn’t want to raise them in New York. I got a job in programming for a couple of years and then a friend asked me about wanting land in the Foothills. The real estate agent was super nice and worked things out with us to pay for it without interest (the Islamic way). At this point there was a lack of jobs here, so I commuted to LA and then the Bay area as an analyst programmer. I worked as a contractor and was making good money, almost a 100 grand and spending it, of course. By the year 2000 there was no need for computer technicians anymore, so a lot of people were out of work. And then 9/11 happened and I thought I wasn’t going to be able to get any job.
Okay in 1993; let’s back up—my mother passed away. And she became Muslim the night she died. I was really happy about that. It was a big deal for me to lose my mother. My father had died when I was in the Middle East, but that wasn’t so big. I needed something to do to fill up my time. SO a friend of mine suggested I volunteered with the Prisons. This was in 1994. And in 2002 they asked me to become part of the Staff. And I became a staff Chaplain. I have been there for 10 years now, and I love it. I am able to talk freely about Islam.
While working there I realized that a lot of the people had a drug problem, so I went back to school—something I swore I would never do—and got a certificate in drug counseling, did that for 5 years. Then after some time I realizes that there was a significant amount of people with mental issues so I went back to school to get my Masters in Psychology and to become a family therapist. As we speak I am taking classes for the Marriage and Family therapist classes.
I work in the prison 4 days a week, and am a drug counselor for 2 days a week as an outpatient counselor. Ultimately I want to create a network—like the Christians that have all these networks and systems for people that need help. Muslims don’t have that here, and while I was an Imam at Masjid(mosque) Al-Aqaba I noticed a lack and at least I have a license to help.
Amanee: When did you become a Imam at that mosque?
Ali: in 2006, and I retired in 20012—well December 31 of 2011
Amanee: so you were raised in the South?
Ali: New York and North Carolina. Went to North Carolina during the summers, and this was a time when segregation was still alive. I remember one day me and my siblings wanted ice cream, but the parlor had no section for colored people, so my grandmother went up and was really polite asking to please buy the ice cream, and that we would eat it away from the store. Growing up in the south, my mother taught us to survive. You had to see trouble across the street and walk the other way. She taught us that we had to see trouble across the street and turn around. It didn’t matter if you weren’t doing anything—if you were there you were going to get in trouble. Growing up was a different experience
My dad was a Dr. and was big on education, but that wasn’t enough. He taught us that if we wanted a job we had to be 3x better than our eurpean blonde-blue eyed counterpart. I was always taught to be a defensive liver, and to work hard, because things don’t just come easy.
Ali lives a life of serving to the community. Even though he comes from a mixed background, he clearly grew up in a period where segregation and discrimination persisted. This even happened when he went to the Middle East, with his coworker Sammy. Growing up, Ali’s parents taught him about how to stay clear from troublesome situations. Education was a big thing to his dad, and something that was always enforced. He wasn’t very passionate about his subject field when he received his bachelor’s degree—at that time it was free and he went into whatever field seemed easy. However, throughout his life Ali had been faced with different hardships: a bad breakup with his ex-wife and his parents’ deaths. The way he dealt with these situations was very positive. Religion was a very big part of his life, and when his relationship ended he looked at religion for an answer; however Catholicism didn’t really help him. In his journey to finding answers and way of life, he embraced Islam. Going to the Middle East was a big deal to him, learning of Islam and teaching his children the religion, and re-marrying. In coming back from the Middle East, within a few years he had lost both of his parents. And he lost both if his parents. This happened to be a time when he had no job as well, and the way he went about this was volunteering in the local state Prisons. In doing this he was able to help people; he spoke of Islam, and got to know the inmates. He went back to school to attain certificates in drug counseling, psychology and marriage and family counseling. Ali has this urge to help people. HE is still in the process of getting his licensee in marriage and family counseling and is married with 9 children. He has been with his wife for 36 years (since 19676), and his children are all grown, married, and in school.
I believe that Ali is an example of a progressive black male because he exemplifies everything that goes against the stereotypes. Black men are often stereotyped as hypersexual, uneducated, lazy, weak, unemployed, and oppressive. Ali has been in a long term marriage; he has many kids, and is employed. The fact that he has pursued higher education is another huge factor. African Americans already have an extremely low graduation rate. Ali beats those odds, and has continued to educate himself with hopes to better others in the community.