Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

Near the mouth of Denver International Airport's Jeppesen Terminal, right before Peña Boulevard splits into the east and west entrances, and just out of view, is a huge parking lot filled with hundreds of taxicabs, a dozen shuttles, several limousines and an RTD bus or two. In the middle of this giant asphalt staging area, where the drivers wait -- some days for hours -- to be called to the terminal to pick up a fare, is a 12-foot-by-12-foot, glass-enclosed bus shelter.

It's the spot where the Muslim drivers kneel facing east -- toward Mecca -- and pray.

Shortly after six on a chilly gray evening, the little vestibule starts to fill up. Rows of black leather airport chairs are stacked to one side; and first five, then a dozen drivers, some with prayer rugs, get down on their knees. As the sea of cabs churns and idles just to the north, these cabbies take time out in their makeshift mosque.

Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims pray five times a day. Before each prayer they are supposed to wash their feet, hands and face. But where is a devout Muslim to wash his feet out here? Although hundreds of drivers pass through this waiting area at any given time, there are only two stalls and a urinal at the nearby ground-transportation office, where airport employees work, and six portable toilets. So there's not much space to do washing of any sort.

"There's people in the county jail that have better facilities than what the brothers have out here, and they're trying to make a living," says frustrated cab driver Ed Jackson, who says he's lobbied DIA's management for changes since the airport opened five years ago.

Of the 1,200 or so drivers who pass through the airport with regularity, a third or more are Muslim, and of those, maybe 30 percent are fairly devout, according to the estimates of a couple of cabbies. That's a lot of foot-washing, a lot of cleaning between the toes and a lot of water splashing on the floor. In fact, the sink in the men's bathroom has been torn off from the wall twice over the years, due, some suspect, to too much weight being placed on it.

Molla Gebeyehu, who is Muslim, has seen drivers wash their feet in the sink before, but he himself doesn't. "It doesn't make sense," the cab driver says. "It's no good. I don't like it."

"I'm sure as heck not going to wash my hands where somebody was washing their feet," adds another cabby, who identified himself only as Mike.

In addition to broken sinks, toilets have been known to back up more than once. "Lots of stuff gets thrown down those toilets," says airport spokesman Chuck Cannon -- like paper towels and trash. "I'm not blaming anyone," he adds.

But Muslim drivers at the airport say the whole foot-washing matter has been blown out of proportion, and they don't like being singled out. Islam, they point out, doesn't require that before prayer a Muslim take off his shoes and socks and make a huge production of washing his feet. Driver Husen Robleh says that most of the time he and his companions "touch a little water on our shoes. We don't want our colleagues to be upset."

But requests by the Muslim drivers put other drivers, as well as airport officials, on edge.

Last year, a few Muslims asked if they could bring a trailer onto the lot so they could have a place to pray and even volunteered to pay for the move themselves.

The airport said no. "This issue has come up at other airports around the country," Cannon explains. "Federal law prohibits favoring one religion over another. What happens when the Buddhists want to bring their trailer in?"

The airport did provide the old Stapleton Airport bus-station shelter with lights, air conditioning and heating, but Cannon points out that it is for everyone to use to get out of the elements on a hot or cold day, to play cards (though there are no tables in there), to think, whatever.

Jackson doesn't buy it. "[Airport management] made a point of telling the Muslims, 'You've got a place to pray.' They've done a good job of quietly appeasing these people in a way that they don't have to deal with charges that taxpayer funds are being used to aid and abet the practice of their religion."

As for a facility for feet, something the Muslim drivers also requested, the airport installed an outdoor faucet (which is closed in the winter) last year, though Cannon adds, again, that it is not specifically for religious practices like footwashing: A lot of the drivers carry water bottles, he says, and the bottles are too tall to fit under the sink faucet in the bathroom when drivers try to fill them.

The faucet still didn't address the woeful lack of bathroom space in the cabbies' staging area, however, so to appease both the Muslim drivers and their non-Muslim colleagues, airport officials are now constructing a concrete building south of the lot. Inside, there will be six new, albeit stark, restrooms. Each stall is actually a room with concrete walls, floor to ceiling, and a stainless steel sink and toilet -- very jail-cell chic. The $534,000 facility, delayed five months, is due to open by May 1.

But the drivers, irritated by a $2.50 gate fee they must pay whenever they pass through the lot and concerned about escalating gas prices, are in no mood for what they see as a half-assed effort. "The point is, we're five years into this airport and it's taken them as long to build these toilets as it's taken to built the entire airport," says Jackson.

"My question is, 'Why hasn't this been done since day one?'" adds Mike the cabbie. "It's disgraceful the way they treat us here."

The new facility had also appeared to be an opportunity to provide a place for washing feet -- a shower stall, perhaps. "Showers were discussed when they were talking about the new facility," Cannon says.

But the showers weren't installed, he adds, "not to prevent Muslims from washing feet. It was just determined that economically, people waiting in line for a cab that could be called at a moment's notice probably don't want to be stuck in the shower."

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T.R. Witcher