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For this first time, the Islamic call to prayer is being broadcast in Astoria, Queens


In New York City, there have been new sounds on the streets of Astoria during Ramadan this year. Mosques have been broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer over loudspeakers with the city's permission. That's happened before in some U.S. cities and in some parts of the city, but as Zach Hirsch reports, it's a first for Queens.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: On Friday afternoon, worshippers were gathered outside Al-Iman Mosque in part of Astoria called Little Egypt. Mohammed Yousef moved here from the real Egypt five years ago. He says the adhan, the call to prayer that's been playing in the street, reminds him of home.

MOHAMMED YOUSEF: It is like you are in your own country, your home country. It's just like a little bit because in Egypt, honestly, it's going to be more loud.

HIRSCH: Three mosques in the neighborhood have been amplifying the call with loudspeakers, announcing each of the five daily prayers except for the one at dawn. Rana Abdelhamid is a community organizer and former candidate for Congress who grew up here. She submitted the permit applications to local police, who gave the approval last month at the start of Ramadan.

RANA ABDELHAMID: The initial agreement we were applying for the permits was that this was kind of like a test run so that if it does go well and there are no sound problems or complaints that it would go beyond Ramadan for the entire year, which is what our goal is - is for it to be something that is year-round.

HIRSCH: When Abdelhamid first heard the call to prayer coming from her mosque, she cried. And she says lots of people have had the same reaction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

HIRSCH: Mustapha Chkhachekh says when he hears this, he can feel it in his heart.

MUSTAPHA CHKHACHEKH: It give you a feeling like you have to go to pray - is a call from Allah. You have a sensation that Allah is calling you to come to prayer - an invitation to his house.

HIRSCH: Abdelhamid says the adhan came up in community town halls. Astoria has a large population of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Abdelhamid says many of her neighbors were nostalgic for the call to worship. But for her, it's so emotional because of what it was like being Muslim in the city after 9/11. Mosques were under heavy surveillance, and lots of Muslims felt like they had to hide their identity. Abdelhamid remembers people changing their names, putting away their hijabs and shaving their beards.

ABDELHAMID: Anything that marked them as clearly Muslim. I remember growing up, and there was a lot of shame around my identity, and now I'm like, nah - and, like, nah. You know, like, yes, there's xenophobia. Yes, there's this hate-based violence. But I'm, like, proud to be Muslim.

HIRSCH: The difference now, she says, is what she calls a resistance culture of joy - dedicated efforts to recognize people's needs and celebrate their identities. Mosques in other New York neighborhoods have amplified the call to prayer in the past. There were noise complaints, even threats. But in Astoria, the response has been positive.

ATEF MOHAMED: To me, it is like when you hear the church bells in the morning on Sunday.

HIRSCH: Atef Mohamed is chairman of Masjid El-Ber, one of the oldest mosques in New York City, where church bells are exempt from the noise code. The law says all houses of worship, including mosques, can use organs, chimes or similar instruments, but there's nothing on the books for an amplified call to prayer. Mohamed says that's an important part of religious life for many practicing Muslims.

MOHAMED: We have a lot of Muslims here in the area, a lot of stores. And people is busy buying and selling, so people will forget the time for the prayer. So if they hear the adhan, they will rush to come to the masjid and pray.

HIRSCH: Ramadan ends this week when the initial permits expire. Astoria's mosques hope to continue the adhan throughout the day all year.

For NPR News, I'm Zach Hirsch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Zach Hirsch