WEST Vancouver architect Farouk Noormohamed has won several awards for the design of the Headquarters-Lions Gate Jamatkhana, the place of worship for the North Shore's Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim community.
Before an audience of 200 community and business leaders, members of her jamat (mosque) and invited guests, 12-year-old Zahra Amarshi spoke eloquently of these and other tenets of her faith. Amarshi is a Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim. Like other girls her age, she's a Pathfinder, likes shopping, listens to pop music and is a huge Canucks fan (Todd Bertuzzi is her favourite player). She also attends Saturday morning religious education classes and is a Young Volunteer in the Ismaili Volunteer Corps.
Amarshi is one of approximately 2,000 Ismailis who call the North Shore home. Her speech last Sunday was part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Headquarters-Lions Gate Jamatkhana.
Jamatkhana is Arabic for place of worship. The Lions Gate Jamatkhana is where the North Shore Ismaili community worships - and studies and plays.
Jamatkhana also means place of community. The Lions Gate Jamatkhana is where the North Shore Ismaili community congregates for social events. It is where seniors share lunch together on Wednesdays, where new moms gather to show off their newborns, where students come to work on their homework and where men get together Sunday mornings for a spirited game of volleyball.
Barely visible through the trees above the Trans-Canada Highway, the impressive facility is located on Gladwin Drive in North Vancouver, just west of MacKay Creek. In addition to a prayer hall, the architectural showpiece houses a social hall with multi-purpose sports court, a library, three squash courts, and classrooms for children's activities and religious study.
The Lions Gate Jamatkhana is one of 17 such facilities in British Columbia. There are approximately 12,000 Ismaili Muslims in the province. They live and work throughout the Lower Mainland and B.C.'s smaller towns such as Kamloops, Nanaimo and Logan Lake. There are also student jamatkhanas at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser and the University of Victoria.
All of the jamats in the province are governed by the Ismaili Council for British Columbia, whose members are volunteers appointed by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims. Ismailis believe that the Aga Khan is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
The Lions Gate Jamatkhana is like no other in the province in that it so successfully blends what its architect calls the elements of the mind, body and spirit.
Farouk Noormohamed and his design firm, FNDA Architecture, have won numerous awards for the project, including the Canadian Wood Council's national award of merit in 1994. Last week, the Architectural Institute of British Columbia awarded Noormohamed the Barbara Dalrymple Memorial Award for Community Service, recognizing the architect for his gifts of time and expertise to the B.C. Ismaili community and its many activities, and for his efforts, including education lectures on Islamic architecture, to encourage greater public awareness and cross-cultural understanding throughout the province.
Noormohamed, a West Vancouver resident, was presented with a sizable challenge when the North Shore Ismaili community approached him to build their jamatkhana. The Ismaili community purchased the property on Gladwin Drive, the site of the Lions Gate Tennis Club, in 1992.
Previously, the community had struggled to find a place to gather. The first jamatkhana on the North Shore was located at Larson elementary school. That was in 1973 and there were just 250 members. An early problem was finding storage for prayer carpets. Rolls of carpets were stored in a van and trucked in for prayer service. Over the years, the jamat moved its place of worship from Larson to Highland United Church, to Hamilton, Queens and Lynnmour schools and then to Capilano College before purchasing the site on Gladwin Drive.
The site's footprint was large, 3,700 square metres (40,000 square feet), but the project's funding was limited. Noormohamed proceeded to renovate the existing facility.
Transforming a tennis club to an award-winning showpiece was no easy feat. Noormohamed calls the original structure a "big tin box." He likens the transformation of its exterior to being presented with a box wrapped in plain paper and dressing it up with pretty ribbons. Noormohamed's "ribbons" are cedar lattice work that has been used extensively throughout the site's landscaping and on the building's exterior and at its entrances. Built into the lattice work are motifs that are reminiscent of Islamic art and architecture. The effect is that the cedar embellishments are brought forward and the structure itself recedes into the landscape.
Noormohamed's architecture reflects the Islamic ideals of balance and symmetry as well as the dual dimension of human and social life (material and spiritual). Inside the jamatkhana, the social and prayer halls are separated only by a foyer, which allows people to flow easily from one space to another.
Symbolism abounds but its treatment is subtle, gently reminding worshippers of their purpose. There is the repetition of three - three windows, three lights, three motifs etched in glass - representing Allah (God), the Prophet Mohammed and Ali (the first Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Muslim community). There is also dramatic use of light and shadow.
While the facility is highly lauded for its architectural innovation, its creator defers credit to his Creator.
"Good architecture has got to do with good inspiration and all inspiration is from Allah," says Noormohamed. "It is not the greatness of the architect but the greatness of the vision. The inspiration is not mine, it is really due to Allah. The architect is really a translator or the instrument through which the design actually gets translated into physical space."
Who worships at the Lions Gate Jamatkhana? Teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, bankers, real-estate agents.
The jamat reflects the wider North Shore society, says Farrah Jinha, 32, who runs a small technology-focused public relations firm and lives on the North Shore.
Like many Ismailis, Jinha came to Canada with her family 30 years ago as a refugee. Her family fled Uganda while it was under the repressive regime of Idi Amin. The Ugandan military ruler brutally suppressed ethnic groups and political enemies, killing an estimated 200,000 during his regime.
"My family, like thousands of others, had to leave very quickly," said Jinha.
Her father was a manufacturer's representative, her mother an office administrator. As United Nations High Commission refugees, the family fled to Canada, where they were welcomed in Ottawa with open arms. Their bank accounts frozen, they arrived with a single 10-pound English note, which Jinha's father had wrapped in cellophane and hid in a cologne bottle.
The first Ismailis arrived in Canada in the mid-1960s as part of a professional pool that emigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom and western European countries. In the early '70s, political changes in many Asian and African countries, not just Uganda, led to the arrival of larger numbers of Ismailis in Canada.
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church shares a parking lot with the Lions Gate Jamatkhana.
At last Sunday's 10th anniversary celebrations, Pastor Richard Stetson provided the closing remarks. Stetson spoke about tolerance and understanding, sending a message to the wider North Shore community.
"There are times when events in our world jolt us out of our own busyness and complacency and remind us of the need for mutual understanding and intentionally building community," said Stetson.
"The common Abrahamic heritage that Christianity and Islam share is gaining a new profile among us, as we learn once again that mutual understand and respect for one another is essential in a multicultural, multi-faith environment. In this environment we cannot leave that to chance.
"We share more than parking spaces. We share many values and a calling from God to make life better for others."