Fares and Prayers | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Fares and Prayers 

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Wacker Drive streaks north through the Loop, swerves to miss the river, and roars along hotel row, the bottom level pulling a tight left into the drive, the top screeching to a halt midair. Here, at the dead end of upper Wacker, peace reigns.

Sheltered from the tide of traffic, trolled only by slow sedans in search of a resting spot, the whacked-off end of Wacker is oasis to the driving professional.

As havens go, it's pretty sparse: a wide asphalt cul-de-sac, two curbside trash cans, and a glorious view of Lake Michigan unencumbered by fire hydrant, parking meter, or tow zone. Here lanky limos can stretch out. Heavy-breathing buses sigh deeply. Taxis scamper in and pant side by side as their masters pop free to stretch, munch, talk shop. Here, cabdrivers pray.

"It's clean, it's not crowded, and no one disturbs you," says Ahmad Abutaleb, unfolding from a crouch on the sidewalk. And with sight lines that offer a straight shot east toward Mecca, the dead-end drive's got ambience to boot. Abutaleb makes Wacker his pious pit stop for at least two of his obligatory five prayer breaks a day.

Convenience is the prime amenity, explains Syed Waseem Mubarik, dusting off a patch of snowy sidewalk and unfurling his yellow prayer rug. Chicago has at least five downtown mosques, each with the proper facilities for the ritual preprayer wash. But parking is a major hassle. Upper Wacker offers easy-in, easy-out for those equipped with a water jug and rag. "It's easy for me to just pray and run," says a colleague, tucking a flattened cardboard box into his trunk and peeling off.

Not everyone loitering the U-turn has come to worship. Just most. "Muslims come to pray," says Hope James Ocloo, spreading a set of carryout tins across the front seat of his yellow cab. "Guys like me come to eat. This is the only place the police won't harass you."

Napping and stretching are also popular. "Driving all the time is no good--you need to stand up," says Barakat Alnatsheh, ducking into the backseat of a friend's cab. Alnatsheh isn't especially observant, but he comes to the devotional drive-in regularly just to socialize. The cabdrivers make the most of the opportunity to do lunch, but their counterparts in stiff suits and long limos maintain a dignified distance, chatting--if at all--window to window. "They hardly talk to anyone," says Alnatsheh.

Joe Kakam pulls in and sets his seat to full tilt. Usually sleepy drivers head to the airport, he explains, where the two-hour wait for a fare can double as nap time. But Wacker is a good alternative if the flow of rides keeps you downtown. Conversely, those stuck in the airport line at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, or one and a half hours later have an alternate curbside prayer site at O'Hare.

"It's close to God," says Ahab Souri, who regularly takes in the lake vista. It reminds him of the Galilee back home. "It's peaceful. You complain to the sea. I just give everything I have inside myself to the sea. It takes a lot and it gives you a lot. Fish and diamonds, all good comes from the sea. Treasures are from the sea, and if you love a woman and she screws your life, you go there and you find healing. Healing is there. You steal that place. Nobody knows it. Though everybody knows it. Usually who turns around from there are very relaxed. Very relaxed people. So take it easy."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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