Mohamed's Ghosts

An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland


By Stephan Salisbury

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Mohamed Ghorab had no hint one late spring morning in May 2004 that when he dropped his daughter off at school, his life would change forever. Federal agents and police surrounded him in front of terrified parents, teachers, and school children. They hustled him off to jail and eventually deported him. His wife, bewildered and astonished, was detained at the same time,. Moments later, agents raided the obscure Philadelphia mosque where Ghorab was imam, ransacking its simple interior and his house next door. Over the next several months, members of Ghorab’s congregation would be arrested and detained, interrogated and watched. Many would be deported. Others would flee the neighborhood and the country as their lives became riddled with rumor. Informants seemed to be listening everywhere. Husbands were separated from wives. Children were torn from parents. The mosque collapsed in a sea of debt and anxiety. The neighborhood lost something essential–trust and community.

This was a jumpy and fearful time in the life of America following 9/11, as prize-winning reporter Stephan Salisbury well knew. But he did not anticipate the extremity of fear that emerged as he explored the aftermath of that virtually forgotten raid. Over time, the members of the mosque and the imam’s family gradually opened up to him, giving Salisbury a unique opportunity to chronicle the demolition of lives and families, the spread of anti-immigrant hysteria, and its manipulation by the government. As he explores events centered on what he calls “the poor streets of Frankford Valley” in Philadelphia, or the empty streets of Brooklyn , or the fear-encrusted precincts of Lodi, California and beyond, Salisbury is constantly reminded of similar incidents in his own past–the paranoia and police activity that surrounded his political involvement in the 1960s, and the surveillance and informing that dogged his father, a well-known New York Times reporter and editor, for half a century. Salisbury weaves these strands together into a personal portrait of an America fracturing under the intense pressure of the war on terror — the Homeland in the time of Osama.


For Jennifer

How to Take Down a Mosque
IT SEEMED LIKE A long sleep, and when I woke, I found myself in another country, a shadow country running parallel to where I thought I'd been living for decades. This was a land where everything was the same, but not the same. Here was a country at war, but not at war; a country at peace with arrests and investigations carried out in the sinking light of dawn; a country keeping tabs and comfortable with the busy work. You don't know what you don't know, they liked to say these days. And no one said much more. What did I know? When I was a student at Columbia University back in the late 1960s, I lived in a country at war, and everyone knew it; a country of arrests and bellicose investigations; a country of records and files and interrogations and violence. It was a country of anger and resentments, a country that hunkered down to protect itself from enemies within, and ultimately a country so powerful, so magnanimous, so enfolding, it could absorb millions of alienated opponents and transform them into the engines of the future. And here I was, the future was now, and I felt we had slept for twenty years, only to awake back at the beginning, back when you didn't know if your conversation was being recorded, if your wanderings were being tracked, and if your name graced endless sheets of paper silently filed away in a government cabinet. A cold, ineffable presence now filled the air. What I thought was dead was not dead, simply transmogrified. This was a country of ghosts, apparitions that once seemed vanquished, but that had reappeared and reappeared and reappeared, each time with a different face, a different story, and greater, more secret ruthlessness. There may be anger here, but it was stashed out of the way, folded and stored in an attic.
I remember driving with my father one day, back in the summer of 1967, following a sophomore year in which I grew more and more fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War. The government is hopelessly corrupt, I said. It's hopelessly dictatorial, slaughtering millions in Southeast Asia, ignoring or jailing anyone opposed to the war and willing to take action over it. The government only understands force. Only force will end the killing. No, he said, that is never the answer. We were driving down First Avenue in Manhattan on a hot night. There were days, he said, and I remember them, when children lived over here along the East River starving to death. They lived on the banks of the river and picked at garbage. Old people starved. Families were thrown out of their homes. There were people sleeping on the street, thousands, maybe tens of thousands dying of hunger and disease. There were campfires in Central Park and tents and lean-tos. It's better now; slowly it has improved. You proceed with small steps.
My father was tough, but the most gentle of men. And in this brief conversation, street lights flickering across his face, reflecting off his wire-rimmed glasses, he distilled his philosophy into one short sentence: He believed in perfectibility. Governments, for the most part, harbor no such belief. They are about sustainability. The governed are always a threat to that. In my father's view, the way to perfect was to expose. Show the difference between what is said and what is done, between what we think we are and what we actually do. Open up that wound for all to see and cauterize it. On this hot summer night—perhaps Detroit was burning at the time or Newark or East Harlem—he told me that patience was required, patience and information. There are many questions, he said, and what you see at any moment offers up answers. My father was an American newspaperman to the core, and even though the government had secretly burglarized our suburban house at the onset of World War II in the ludicrous belief he was a German spy; even though he had lived in Moscow as a correspondent under constant surveillance, watched at all times, bugged, shadowed, and censored; even though he had seen friends disappear into the Soviet penal system and later saw American friends bugged and arrested and beaten in the South during the civil rights movement; and even though he was clandestinely watched and listened to by the CIA and National Security Agency when American authorities were annoyed by his Soviet reporting and infuriated by his Vietnam reporting for the New York Times, even after all of this repetition, this drumbeat of cynical deceit, he believed in the power of truth and reason, the power of change, and the bedrock fact of human decency. Perfectibility. As the Vietnam War continued in its ferocity year after year, he believed that bringing the raw facts to light would ultimately overpower deception. The war would be stopped because people would finally grow sick of the prevarications—but only if they knew about them. I remember being stupefied by this almost serene stubbornness, this willingness to accept less as enough, even for a moment. But despite people dying in the streets of Detroit and Newark that very summer, shot on the spot by our own government, he had seen far more ghosts than I had.
DEEP INTO ANOTHER WAR, I stood on a forlorn corner in Philadelphia and found myself asking the most basic questions of any war at any time: Who is friend, and who is foe? Who is being attacked and for what reasons? What is defeat, and what is victory? Am I an enemy? Strange questions, really, after so many years of killing. Shouldn't a nation at war have clear answers after so many deaths and so much disruption? I had similar questions a generation ago, as did millions of other Americans; the absence of plausible answers was one reason so many took to the streets in opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.
What did this corner, tucked away in a forgotten pocket of the city, have to do with war? On one side of Wakeling Street, fronted by a sweeping, empty asphalt parking lot, stood the low-slung Baptist Worship Center and Excell Christian Academy—a formidable box that in earlier times served as a giant Super Fresh market and Eckerd drugstore. Directly across the street, east of the church, the Risque and Excitement video emporiums offered a "Hot Summer Sale—Twice the Fun!" Down the block, a pink billboard poked up over Aramingo Avenue: "Can you sell mud to a pig?" it asked, in the name of Looming over all, just beyond the hum and rattle of elevated I-95, the Allied Chemical complex sprawled—mainstay, lifeline, and sometimes explosive threat to the neighborhood; at night, the outlines of its intricate maze of pipes and girders and tanks covering forty-five acres near the Delaware River flickered in a tracery of bright white lights, an otherworldly outline of the toxic workaday world.
Cars streamed past, and the sidewalks were empty. I was alone here and probably unobserved. No video cameras jutted from the front of an AOH clubhouse down the block, where a couple of afternoon drinkers sat at the bar and a green, white, and orange Irish flag drooped from a second-floor pole. No camera was suspended over the intersection. I had no cell phone emitting its silent tracking signal. My car was an old company car. No GPS chips were lodged anywhere in its battered body. No E-Z pass marked my passage through any tolls to get here. No neighbors leaned on their sills, watching. No black SUVs with darkened windows sat still as cats in the Baptist parking lot.
I was drawn to this spot, the corner of Wakeling Street and Aramingo Avenue in Philadelphia's old working-class community of Frankford Valley, by an easily overlooked whitewashed cinderblock building across from the Baptist Center—a one-time auto body and repair shop, in recent years converted to a mosque. There were no worshippers on this day, however. The central bay door was pulled shut. A chain-link fence, tangles of weeds growing up through its interlacing loops, surrounded building and parking lot. A dirty yellow Abco Auto Body sign teetered over the barbed wire atop the fence, and a metal gate stood chained and padlocked shut. The windows were boarded up.
Next door was a seriously weathered three-story stucco house with a brick-front first floor and a rickety high porch. A red crayon, a small toy truck, a green squirt gun, several yellowed newspapers, and a pot of ashen flowers were strewn across porch and steps. The first-floor windows were partially covered with plywood. A battered white chest of drawers leaned on garbage cans at the foot of the porch stairs. The house was empty.
Emptiness spread now like a durable stain down Wakeling, but for a moment, an instant in the life of Frankford Valley, this spot had been one of the dramatic focal points of the Global War on Terror.
Federal agents, primed and ready, watched this house and the old body shop, now so quiet and still and forgettable, for months. Many evenings and Fridays they would sit in dark unmarked se - dans across Wakeling in the Baptist parking lot, making no effort to hide—promoting themselves, in fact—observing the comings and goings of people at prayer. Infiltrators were dispatched to the mosque to gather information on any terrorist plots budding on the poor streets of Frankford Valley. Informers sucked up all manner of gossip and rumor and whispered it to any congregant who might listen and then on to federal agents who, in turn, laid it down as fact in reports that wended their way to the Philadelphia office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Philadelphia Office of the FBI, to the immigration and criminal courts, and on through the federal bureaucracy to Washington and perhaps even to John Ashcroft himself.
And it is here, on May 27, 2004—a day after Ashcroft sternly warned once more of terrorists among us—that a hundred agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and the IRS, not to mention local police, armed with automatic weapons, protected by body armor and employing bomb-sniffing dogs, descended in the early morning to round up a thick-bodied Egyptian imam who had overstayed his visa and married an American citizen, possibly to gain American citizenship for himself and—though this thought was hardly entertained by authorities—possibly for love.
In retrospect, it seems that marriage and family were surrogates for fraud and dark designs, and religion and nationality had once again become the very essence of threat in America. The war on terror burst at the corner of Aramingo and Wakeling like a mine, roiling and scattering everyone in its wake, and then moved on. The waters of urban life closed quickly. But what happened here goes beyond protective zealousness in the wake of 9/11. It is more than a metaphor for countless engagements in the war on terror, the many raids in the murk of dawn, the innumerable arrests for purported marriage fraud or minor visa irregularities. It demonstrates more than an anti-Islamic or anti-immigrant predicate undergirding much of "homeland security." What Frankford Valley reveals is a disturbing paradox that has moved to the heart of an increasingly conflated public and private life. What isn't there suggests what could be, and what could be, is. Absence of evidence is evidence itself. What can be imagined has replaced the actual. And the generally messy essences of daily life are not seen for what they are—mistakes or foolishness or hubris or even misguided helpfulness; rather, they are masks of a grim intent deliberately obscured.
Nothing seems to be what it appears; be is not finale of seem. And the only constant is anxiety and fear. Fear is the clay of power and of reality itself.
SEEING THIS MOSQUE, A house of worship, ultimately obliterated by a federal raid following the onset of the Iraq War finally shattered a kind of cultural sleep for me—a child of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the subversions of COINTELPRO. Walking through Frankford Valley and speaking with those members of the congregation I could find, I was forced to continually reflect on past periods of national threat and on my own experience. What at first seemed an anomaly on Wakeling Street was, I realized, a refashioned political drama in a skein of such dramas leading back far into my past and into the past of my country. What is here has been here before; it has been repeatedly reworked and reborn, regardless of partisan politics. Wakeling Street, rough edged and out of the way, was a road through an old and menacing landscape of domestic and political trauma.
Not that there weren't differences. The past was the same and not the same. A generation ago, for those involved in civil rights or antiwar politics, government intrusion and disruption was a fact of life. At Columbia we knew the university was involved with the Defense Department and war research; we knew that federal agents and police were disguised and undercover on campus; we knew informants were sprinkled among our fellow students and even within the faculty, passing information about student antiwar and political activities to New York police and federal authorities. Wiretaps, informers, surveillance, disruption—those were the particulates of poisoned water. None of it mattered at the time. None of it served as a political deterrent. Such subversions were merely obstacles. Yes, many of my friends and classmates were watched, consigned to secret police files, targeted by undercover agents and government informers and, ultimately, included on illicit government lists of dangerous and subversive persons in need of monitoring and even preemptive arrest. My own father was on such a list and in such files, and I was too. And yes, acts of informants, undercover police, and agents provocateurs yielded arrests, violence, and even death. Then, as now, "freedom" was invoked by the government to justify war and all manner of questionable domestic activity.
But freedom also had a concrete meaning, spelled out for us in the nation's founding documents and hammered into us daily as schoolchildren as we came out from under our desks following atom bomb drills. The Soviet Union was totalitarian. America was free. Freedom was what defined us as a nation and bestowed on us our moral certitude. It's all right there in the U.S. Constitution. The woeful children living under Communism had no rights. Our fathers had triumphed over Hitler and the Nazis. Our leaders would triumph over Communism. Why? Because we are a free people.
As I look back, it seems that this rhetoric had some unexpected consequences: It lent legitimacy and possibility to the civil rights movement. It's what ultimately drove the anti-Vietnam War movement as well. We had a right to damn the government and push it and challenge it, and the government had no right to undermine our fundamental liberties to maintain its power and control. And if the wise men in charge intended to scoop us up and ship us off to fight and perhaps die in Vietnam, we had a fundamental right to say no, not here, not now, not ever. In fact, we were powerless and voiceless: We were expected to kill or be killed at the behest of the government, we were expected to follow the orders of our elders, but we had no say, no vote, no part in deciding who those leaders were and what went into their orders. Those active in the civil rights movement faced the same stark contradictions. What alternative to the street did we have? In the street, we exercised our freedom and found a voice. We gained strength and fearlessness—whatever the faults and tragic results of our actions—from our youth, our numbers, and our ideals. Freedom was not a rhetorical device; it formed the core of political life—even in the absence of voting rights, even in a world controlled by white men, even in the coddled world of academic in loco parentis. We acted. That was our America: We were children growing up in a republic of ideas, and our freedom was in the street and in our actions.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1967, when my father sought to tamp down my political impatience and naiveté, we traveled to the Soviet Union with a small army of New York Times reporters preparing special coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. I was along just soaking it all up, and I remember one day we drove with Ray Anderson, the Times' Moscow bureau chief, out to Zagorsk—center, even then, of the Russian Orthodox Church. Motoring along a beautiful country road, we decided on the spur of the moment to stop at a grassy town square for a picnic. It was peaceful and green, and the Cold War was far away, frigid in the wake of the Six Day War. We parked and were spreading a blanket when two cars full of KGB agents raced up and slammed to a stop. Not allowed, they shouted. It was not on our approved itinerary. We could not sit in the grass and eat bread and cheese and drink wine. Absolutely forbidden. We had been followed all the way from Moscow. And after we packed up and headed off, we were followed all the way to Zagorsk. And then all the way back to the National Hotel, across from the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral. To Anderson and my father, this was typical; to me, it was shocking.
Later that fall, as I returned to school for my junior year at Columbia, a major antidraft demonstration was held in lower Man - hattan. Antiwar protestors sought to block access to the Selective Service center on Whitehall Street, an important intake point for military inductees and a symbol of the arbitrary nature of the war. As the crowd became more and more boisterous and demonstrators sat down blocking the entrance, New York City police on horse-back rode directly into them. Large numbers of people were unable to avoid flailing hooves, and panic and blood spilled across the sidewalk. I was planning to participate in this demonstration, but I was late, and by the time I arrived, demonstrators had fanned out through the financial district, disrupting traffic. As I watched, I struck up a conversation with a friendly bearded kid who said he had seen horses smash into crowds of people, scattering everyone and leaving some lying on the street, too injured to move. He said it was fucked up. I agreed. He said it required action. I said yes. And then, as a patrol car moved past us on the street, the bearded kid grabbed me, twisted my arm behind my back, and called out to the car, and before I knew even what was happening, I was shoved against the patrol car, surrounded by uniformed police, pushed in, and whisked away directly to the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street, known as the Tombs. I should have expected undercover agents trolling the streets. People were challenging the law and the draft. We had deviated from our approved itinerary. Mayor Lindsay praised police for the respect shown the rights of demonstrators.
The daily world of the old Soviet Union and the daily world of America in the 1960s were hardly equivalent. What was revealed, however, on the country road to Zagorsk and at curbside on Broad Street in lower Manhattan was the unsettling and threatening duplicity of a covert police presence. Whether on that town square in Russia or in the New York Financial District, police were secretly operating within the ordinary space of daily life. And in both cases, the message delivered was identical: Don't step out of line. Tell your friends and neighbors not to step out of line. You are being watched, and you don't know who or where we are. You don't know what you don't know. God knows what the poor peasants in that beautiful Russian village had to go through in the wake of our aborted picnic. God knows how many others were busted for nothing by that friendly and earnest kid near Whitehall Street.
At least I was a conscious actor in Manhattan on that day long ago. I meant to be at Whitehall. What about the Muslims attending services on Wakeling Street? Almost all were immigrants. Some were full-fledged citizens. Some had overstayed their visas. Some were in the process of obtaining green cards that would bestow long-term residency. Some already had green cards. All of these people were simply trying to live their lives. Yet it didn't matter how long they had been in the United States. It didn't matter what their formal immigration status was. All feared the government. All feared the murk of immigration. All feared the specter of Guantanamo. All believed they were on the high edge of America balanced over a black maw. They had no defense, no protection but anonymity. They feared the knock on the door in the night. And they all understood, in the wake of September 11, 2001, what I failed to realize as a kid: the friendly guy on the corner, eager to strike up a chat and pass the time talking about comings and goings, might not be what he appeared to be. The street did not represent freedom for them; it threatened with exposure, attack, arrest, detention, deportation.
After decades, with another war mounted and Whitehall Street largely forgotten, with no draft, and barely any images of the battlefield penetrating into the public realm, with government agents and undercover cops again moving out invisibly into local communities, with arrests, with invocations of freedom coming from Washington, and with deep, deep fear suffusing many immigrant enclaves, I looked around and wondered, What country is this? What is a "homeland?"
THE ABCO BODY SHOP was, as I said, not an Abco Body Shop and hadn't been one for years. It was the home of the Ansaarullah Islamic Society, a small mosque established in January 2002 by Mohamed Ghorab, a mechanical engineer, mediocre businessman, passionate student of Islam, and Egyptian national who had dreamed of starting his own mosque since before he came to the United States from Alexandria in 2000.
The building wasn't disguised; it wasn't posing as Abco to obscure some mysterious and sinister agenda. The congregation simply could not afford to remove the old Abco sign post, and besides, they were only tenants and given the huge monthly rental for the property, over $4,000, there always seemed to be more pressing needs. That became increasingly the case as 9/11 receded and the war on terror ground its way across the American battlefield, sowing apprehension daily. By late 2003, more often than not, congregation bail and legal matters needed immediate attention, sucking up the financial resources of everyone connected with the mosque. Why bother with the Abco sign?
The bedraggled house next door served as the imam's residence. He lived there with his first American wife, or at least they lived there together part of the time. But life between them became difficult, and after their divorce, Mohamed Ghorab lived there with his much-loved second American wife, Meriem Moumen, a Morocco-born U.S. citizen. They settled in, even as the house, with its porous, failing roof and kitchen ceiling, gradually collapsed around them—like much else in their world.
I looked up at the house and tried to imagine Ghorab and Moumen coming out the front door. She is dark and veiled, holding their baby; he wears a white galabiya and whispers something funny in her ear. She laughs as he pulls the door closed. But Ghorab had hardly a chance to begin his ministry and life with Moumen when, in March 2003, he was arrested for his supposedly fraudulent first American marriage. Then, a year after he posted a $50,000 bond, Ghorab was again arrested in the massive May 2004 raid. He was never released after that, never charged with any criminal wrongdoing, kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time, never granted bail. He was simply held, first at York County Prison, south of Harrisburg, where the federal government leases a huge wing to hold immigration violators and terrorism suspects, and then at Pike County Prison, in northeastern Pennsylvania, far from Philadelphia, an untenable drive. He was alone. Meriem was alone.
In November 2005, after enduring one disappointing and incomprehensible hearing after another, after getting repeatedly ineffective and costly legal advice, Ghorab gave up his fight to remain in the United States and was deported to Egypt in December. Moumen went too, taking their American-born eighteen-month-old daughter. But her thirteen-year-old daughter by a previous marriage, also American-born, refused to leave the United States, rending the family like brittle paper and rocking Moumen to her psychic core. Husband or daughter? America or Egypt? Depression or death-in-life? Meriem's choice. By that time, not surprisingly, the Ansaarullah Islamic Society had closed, unable to pay its bills, unable to retain its congregation, unable to function at all. The mosque shut down, itself a victim and, in the eyes of many, a target of the war on terror.
Did Ansaarullah represent anything more than a battered old city corner revived by the devout? Did it embody some kind of inchoate threat, a threat invisible to all but those who knew what no one else seemed to know? What is known and incontrovertible is that months after the mosque was incorporated in January 2002, congregants began to face waves of legal troubles as the federal antiterror campaign fired up. At least half a dozen members were arrested for purported immigration violations. A half dozen more were detained and released. Still more were questioned. Some were told their immigration problems might disappear if they provided the right kind of information to authorities. They began working with immigration and law enforcement officials, reporting back on the daily life of the mosque. Several congregants found themselves in deportation proceedings, unable to meet bond, unable to help their families, unable even to understand the labyrinthine and increasingly hostile immigration system.
The president of the mosque, a U.S. citizen, confronted by extensive scrutiny from law enforcement and federal revenue agents, finally sold his house and left the country for Dubai. He was never charged with any violations or crimes. Other members of the mosque, fearing the taint of this fated place, simply vanished. As late as the fall of 2006, long after the mosque had closed, long after Ghorab had left the country, federal authorities were still pursuing former Ansaarullah members, forcing them out of the country. Even in 2008, the mosque, so obscure during its functioning life, was invoked in immigration papers as the site of threats and intimidation directed against a man seeking American citizenship.
I once asked a savvy federal prosecutor why authorities showed such obsessive concern with Ansaarullah.
"Don't you wonder why so many bad guys are hanging around the place?" the prosecutor responded.
"Why do you say 'bad guys'? Scratch the surface of any immigrant group, and you're going to find immigration violations. They aren't crimes," I said.
"That's probably true. But are we supposed to ignore them?"
"But why go after these guys? They probably represent a tiny fraction of immigration violations around the city," I said. The conversation ended in a circle.
"Immigration goes in there. They find one guy, then another and another and another. We can't ignore them."
Besides, the prosecutor said, eerily echoing many anti-Communist prosecutors in the early 1950s and many other prosecutors in supposed U.S. terror cases of the twenty-first century, "You don't know what we know."
What is the essence of "knowing"? Is something true if all believe it is true? If something hasn't happened, does that mean it has been prevented? Is the absence of an event proof that it was stopped, erased before written? When is nothing something? What shadows are cast by nothing?


On Sale
Apr 27, 2010
Page Count
320 pages
Bold Type Books

Stephan Salisbury

About the Author

Stephan Salisbury is the senior cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer where he has been a reporter for three decades. He has covered everything from the Pennsylvania prison system, unrest in Ireland and Eastern Europe, the coup in Turkey, to the culture wars in the United States and disruptions of American life in the wake of September 11, 2001. He has received numerous awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize as part of an Inquirer team investigating local election fraud in 1995. He is married to the painter, Jennifer Baker; they have a daughter and a son.

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