Tucked Away in Plain Sight, Ismaili Jamatkhana Opens Up to Welcome IMAGH

IMAGH President Latafath Hussain presented a bouquet to Saleena Jafry at the presentation held at the Jamatkhana.Photos: Jawahar Malhotra

IMAGH President Latafath Hussain presented a bouquet to Saleena Jafry at the presentation held at the Jamatkhana.
Photos: Jawahar Malhotra

By Jawahar Malhotra

SUGAR LAND: For many people driving by on a Jumah (Friday) night, it is a square brick building with contemporary battlement design along the water’s edge by the weir of Colony Lakes where hundreds of cars drive in and out of in the late evenings onto the tree-lined First Colony Boulevard. When Aftab Ghesani heard this, he first reaction – and that of others at the Ismaili Jamatkhana – was that it is like that every night.

And when you go into the inner sanctum of the prayer hall housed inside the building, you can understand why.

Hussain presenting a bouquet to Jamatkhana President Aftab Ghesani.

Hussain presenting a bouquet to Jamatkhana President Aftab Ghesani.

The enormous prayer hall is a place with subdued lighting; earthtones; plush carpet that cuts out the noise of footsteps; light brown, straight, unadorned walls washed with scalloped lights and a vaulted paneled ceiling. While it can accommodate about 1,800 people for the ritual prayers, it gives off an aura of peacefulness that allows space and time to repose even when surrounded by others.

Since it opened 13 years ago, the common belief was that the Ismaili Jamatkhana was not open to the outside community and only on rare occasions could some invited groups go in to the facility which houses the administrative offices, classrooms and meeting rooms in addition to the prayer hall. “This is a common misconception”, explained Ghesani, who is President of the Ismaili community of Houston. “We have held many functions here, like the Asia Society, and want people to know about us and the purpose of our organization”.

A fountain in the front courtyard of the Ismaili Jamatkhana on First Colony Boulevard in Sugar Land.

A fountain in the front courtyard of the Ismaili Jamatkhana on First Colony Boulevard in Sugar Land.

Which is what led the Indian Muslim Association of Greater Houston to meet this past Sunday morning at 10 am, even though most of the Metro area received heavy thundershowers, and then stay for a guided tour of the facility and have a catered lunch in the large lobby. IMAGH President Latafath Hussain said he had been fascinated by the tour that Ghesani had given him a few weeks earlier and wanted to share that with the rest of the members of his organization.

The tour was part of the IMAGH’s outreach to learn more about other faiths and communities and be more involved in them. Hussain recalled how many in his group still spoke fondly about their visit to the Bohra Jamatkhana. “We want to bring different communities together, to learn from them and also teach them our ways”, he continued as he opened up the presentation. “Respect comes from learning”. The event was emceed by Roja Pakal, the IMAGH’s coordinator for its Club 65 seniors initiative and pulled together by Saleena Jafry, the coordinator for the Ismaili community.

Ghesani, a native of Karachi, Pakistan who has been in the US since 1981, explained briefly how the Jamatkhana was laid out.  The term is actually an amalgamation of the Arabic jama’a (gathering) and the Persian khana (place) and is used by various Muslim communities like the Sufis, Ismailis and Bohras to denote their community center and place of worship. “It is a place of peace, reflection and prayer”, said Ghesani.

The center is set on 11.5 acres among landscaped gardens and includes a collection of Islamic decorative art, exhibition spaces, meeting rooms, private prayer spaces and offices for Ismaili community institutions. The contemporary facility with echoes of historical Islamic elements in its geometry was designed by the Indian architect Ramesh Khosla, whose work includes the former World Trade Center, New York and other structures in Montreal and New Delhi. Texas Governor Rick Perry laid the foundation stone on October 17, 2000 and he was there when the center was formally inaugurated by the Aga Khan, the spiritual head of the Ismailis, on June 23, 2002.

The center is actually three buildings, all linked together, with a round multi-pillared connector that functions as a place to leave your shoes and orient you slightly to face the direction of the Kah’ba before you enter the prayer hall. In the lobby, floor-to-ceiling windows with a frosted geometric emblem of the Center, look out at the gardens on the lakeside and a brick wall with large square cutouts reminiscent of latticework on the entrance and a fountain in the courtyard, just to the side of the porte cochere and covered walkway.

The 150 IMAGH members heard from Shaida Adatia about the Ismaili community and saw a video presentation about the role the current Aga Khan, who is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Khoja Nizari Ismaili’s and is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and his son-in-law Ali. Since he first inherited the title in 1957, Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, the spiritual head of the 15 million Ismailis worldwide, has expanded the renowned work that he spearheads all over the world in education, relief programs, development and maintaining historical Muslim sites. A video showed the current project in New Delhi to restore the 16th century Humayun’s Tomb and uplift the neighboring Nizamuddin Basti area and teach the resident’s as well as train them in artisan and commercial skills.

Added to the program were two short presentations on healthcare insurance and the impact of the new Obamacare. Mohammed Marfani, the Director of the Shifa Community Services on Synott Road explained aspects of the Affordable Care Act and Sudhir Mathuria went into the details of Medicare and Medicaid and how to make selections during this current enrollment period. Mohammed Khan gave a short slide presentation of the plans for the IMAGH’s Youth Initiative and later Mustansir Dohadwala and Tyeb Shipchandler – affectionately known as kaka – sang two songs, while Khalid Razvi and Malik Saeedi shared some light-hearted shairi (poetry) and jokes.