Not a statistic: A father, husband and freedom fighter

Mohammed Akkas Ali wearing an Arabian burnoose during his hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca all Muslims are expected to make at least once during their lifetime.

BY BILL WEINBERG | To me, Mohammed Akkas Ali was one of the many faces we New Yorkers see near daily for years, taken for granted as the background to our lives. Whenever I walked down to East Village Farm grocery at E. Fourth St. and Second Ave. for a late-night seltzer, he would be sitting under the awning, minding the flower stand and chopping mangos for fruit salad. We’d nod at each other but rarely exchanged words — except once when I was passing with a friend who speaks Bengali. She spoke to him in his native tongue, and his face lit up as he replied in kind. I thought of him as a sweet old man.

Then, on June 19, 2013, came the horrific news that in the predawn hours a car speeding down Second Ave. had smashed into the grocery’s facade. Ali was in Bellevue hospital, comatose, his recovery uncertain. A co-worker was also injured, with broken bones.

The Villager reported at the time that the motorist, Shaun Martin, then 32, was actually drag racing at around 80 miles per hour. He was also found to be high on PCP. He had a prior DWI and a bust for cocaine possession.

Over the following months, I’d check in with the folks at the grocery about Ali’s status and prospects. In early July, they said  he’d opened his eyes for the first time — although he didn’t talk.

This proved a false hope. Ali died on Jan 1,  2014. He was 62 years old.

I recently sat down with Rukanul “Rinku” Islam, Ali’s son, who works at a Soho restaurant. He lives in Alphabet City with his mother, Ali’s widow — although she now spends much of the year in the land of her birth.

“A lot of memory comes to her mind, so she goes back to Bangladesh frequently,” Islam told me.

He related how the family arrived in the neighborhood. Ali was the first to come, from their home in the city of Sylhet, in northeast Bangladesh, after winning a lottery visa in 1991.

Before that, Ali worked in a fertilizer plant in Sylhet — a job he got through “a government program for veteran freedom fighters,” Islam said. Ali served as a soldier in the Bangladesh War of Independence from Pakistan in 1971 — an incredibly brutal struggle. Reprisals against the Bangladeshi civilian population by Pakistan’s military are now thought to have constituted genocide.

Not surprisingly, Islam said his father spoke little about his time as a fighter. He would sometimes mention the hardships, how he “struggled to survive with no food, going hungry for days.”

Islam recalled the happy times growing up with his three siblings.

“He would surprise us with toys and new shoes when we were kids,” he said of his father. “He tried to make us laugh.”

Ali brought his wife and children to New York in 2000.  Islam was 12 then. He has two brothers (both also working in the food trade) and one sister (married and raising children).

Ali was a devout man who prayed five times a day, and attended the Madina mosque at First Ave. and E. 11th St. every Friday. In 2006, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife, Rushna Begum.

“He brought dates and water back from Mecca to share with friends and family as a blessing,” Islam recalled.

His life centered around home, family and work.

“He would never hang out with friends outside,” his son said.

After being run down, Ali was at Bellevue in a coma for two months. Then, with some improvement, he was transferred to a facility in New Jersey.

“He would whisper to me to take care of my mom,” Islam recalled his father telling him back then.

He was later transferred to a facility in Queens, where he died unexpectedly.

At Martin’s trial, Islam said he avoided looking at the defendant.

“I try to keep my anger down,” he said. “I wouldn’t look at him because it would make me angrier.”

Today he says he is trying to keep his word to his father that he would study and work for a better life. He has ambitions to become an engineer.

“But it is difficult,” he said, “because I have to look after my mom.”

Last year, Islam married in Bangladesh, but is still waiting to bring his wife, Bushra, to New York.

Martin was charged with vehicular assault, which was upgraded to murder after Ali’s death. In July 2016, he was convicted, and that November was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In announcing the sentence, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. pledged Ali’s death “will not be in vain,” that his office would “continue working to reduce traffic fatalities by holding criminal drivers accountable for the harm that they inflict.”

Charles Komanoff of Right of Way, an advocacy group for pedestrians and bicyclists, is skeptical that Vance has kept that pledge.

“Has there been a substantial change in the prosecution of killer driving in New York County in recent years?” he asked, rhetorically. “The answer is clearly, No. There have been some welcome but lonely exceptions, like the prosecution in the Akkas Ali case.”

At the same time, Komanoff emphasized, “There has to be a solution other than throwing people in prison, which is loathsome.”

But he is still aghast at the situation.

“We’re basically in the same place as 20 years ago,” he said. “People still have a gut feeling when they get behind the wheel that there is some kind of immunity for their reckless behavior — social immunity, judicial immunity.”

According to the city’s Vision Zero Web site, there were 218 traffic fatalities in New York last year, including 105  pedestrians. As of the end of this March, there had been 43 fatalities so far this year, with 26 of them pedestrians.

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