As a child, I would sit by the shoreside and watch the ships roll by in Hatillo, Puerto Rico. I was so fascinated with the journeyers of the oceans — dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, and those big ships carrying cargo to all the different parts of the world. No matter where I went in Puerto Rico, we were surrounded by water. One of my first experiences on a boat was travelling on La Lancha de Cataño from Old San Juan to Cataño and back. Alhamdulillah, I grew to love the sea, and everything related to it.
Wanting to see the world was a big dream for me. At a young age I was God-conscious, and I knew that He created all this beauty that surrounds us, and I wanted to experience it instead of reading about it. Then, one day I took my first trip to Europe. I traveled to England, France, and Spain. It was a six-month trip that took me forever to save up for. Yet, throughout the trip, I was able to either stay with my Muslim brothers, or if not, the accommodations were not expensive.
My uncle, who was a merchant seaman, would come from trips all over the world and I would listen to his adventures and fill my mind with all the places, people, and different cultures he described. One day, he finally asked me if I wanted to become a merchant seaman and see the world. I jumped at the opportunity to go to sea and I got my seaman’s papers and my first official trip was to Sardinia, Italy. From there, we sailed the whole Mediterranean Sea, and even though my job was an entry-level position, I loved every minute of it.
After being trained as a merchant seaman, I finally had the opportunity to drive super tankers. I enjoyed my job on a professional level, and I could pray when I needed to and eat according to my Islamic diet. I could work anywhere as an American merchant seaman, and many companies used to fly me all over the world during my years at sea. As a member of S.I.U. (Seafarers International Union), my rights as a merchant seaman were protected, and no one ever had a problem with my religion while I was at sea.
Despite the positive experiences as a seaman, my life has been hard and, yet, I was able to keep focused on the dreams that I had and try my best to attain them because this was ever-present in my life. I feel that Islam was ever-present in my early years as well, even though I had not been formally exposed to it. And when I was, after hearing Surah Al-Ikhlas, I realized that there is no other deity to be worshiped but Allah. I became Muslim three days later. And so, my purpose in writing a book, “From Harlem to Mecca,” is to motivate young brothers and sisters who have had hard lives to never lose hope.
Being Puerto Rican and Muslim has always been something that makes me proud. As a merchant seaman on board a ship, I had my own private room with my private shower and had no problem with performing daily prayers or fulfilling religious obligations. I kept away from war zones, especially in the Middle East. On my final trip, the captain pulled me aside and requested I take a group of Puerto Rican Muslims to Kuwait. The mission would take one month, to pick up cargo, transport the Puerto Ricans, and make them feel welcomed. We had beautiful accommodations for them and after a day at sea, they insisted on cooking Puerto Rican dishes. Once we got the approval from the captain, our guests became the cooks for three weeks. The food was delicious! They even had brought platanos (plantains) with them! We were able to make a few stops in Greece and Cypress to let out some steam.
I feel like I have fulfilled so many of my dreams, with hard work and dedication. I truly feel that I am part of an ummah, with all my Muslim Latino family and Muslim family across the world. In America, the Latino community is doing a beautiful job in propagating the message of Islam in English and Spanish. May Allah bless them all. Yet, we have a big job ahead of us and we thank Allah for all our brothers and sisters who can contribute to this work in bringing peace and comfort to humanity. We care deeply about humanity and the welfare of the people — within our communities in America and around the world. We must stay dedicated and let Allah’s help augment our efforts. And may His mercy descend upon men, women, and children everywhere.
Yusef Maisonet is a Latino Muslim who has travelled the world as a merchant seaman. He was born in New York City, and has gone on to visit Europe, Africa, the Pacific, the Middle East and more, all while learning from the vibrant and diverse Muslim communities living there.
He has served as an imam for 12 years in Mobile, Alabama. He is also a chaplain for death row inmates and the regular prison population in Alabama. He is active in working with the Latino Muslim community in its approach to spreading this beautiful way of life. His book “From Harlem to Mecca” can be purchased through Amazon.