FLORENCE, Italy — After presiding over an early morning funeral, Izzedin Elzir stopped by his leather jacket stall at Florence's bustling San Lorenzo market.
As the 35-year-old Muslim imam and former fashion student held up various styles for passing tourists, he explained how the cut and color people choose depends somewhat on their nationality, but more on their age.
"Young women want a fashionable jacket, something short, sporty but elegant; instead, older women look for a softer, more comfortable jacket, and they often want a particular color — like red."
Although Elzir specialized in designing women's underwear, he has come to know the jacket trade inside-out.
"Thanks to God, business is going pretty well," he said earlier this month, as he sat in his office at Florence's first mosque, a hall in a former commercial property a short walk from the city's famous cathedral, the Duomo.
'An Islamic contribution to fashion'
Elzir, married and a father of two, is an example of the diversified walks of life the country’s growing number of imams.
Born and raised in the Palestinian city of Hebron, Elzir wanted to pursue a career in fashion after graduating from high school, but was uncertain about the decision.
“I was afraid that studying fashion could contradict my faith,” he said.
“I asked various Islamic scholars and they told me that absolutely wasn’t the case; they said fashion is a part of our lives, and in studying it we should try to give an Islamic contribution to fashion; and from that moment, I decided to come here."
The use of Islamic geometric patterns would be an example of Muslim influenced design, he said, adding that hijab-style veils have also appeared on the catwalk recently, fusing Eastern and Western clothing norms.
Elzir arrived in Florence in 1991 with the economic strategy to study here and use his acquired Italian expertise to open a boutique in his Arab homeland.
At the Italian Academy of Fashion and Design, he studied general men’s and women’s fashion for two years, and in his final year focussed on designing women’s underwear.
“The Muslim woman wears a veil, but at her house and under her veil and clothes, she wears Western underwear,” he said.
“I did some market research and found that the Muslim woman spends a lot of money on her intimate clothes because she wears them for her husband, to show off her beauty to him, and for herself too,” Elzir said.
Based on the profit he foresaw, Elzir decided that his future Palestinian boutique would be dedicated to women's underwear.
But, both his work and his religious life led him in another direction.
Florence's first mosque is born
“During my studies, I had a two-month holiday and I decided to stay in Florence and work, so I worked in the market," he said.
Wrapped around the Basilica of the same name, and adjacent to the enclosed central food market, the San Lorenzo market is well known for its leather jackets.
“I saw that there was the opportunity to develop this work, and I got this stand with a few friends," he said.
With a steady flow of American, Japanese, and European tourists hunting for high quality, Italian-made jackets at reasonable prices, his decision has proved profitable.
At the same time, Elzir and a group of around 20 students and workers, all immigrants from across the Islamic world, decided that the city’s nascent Muslim community needed a place to gather and pray.
“With those 20 people, the first mosque in Florence was born in 1991,” he said.
“Over time this mosque has grown, and now more than 600 people come to Friday prayers.”
Every three years, the Islamic Community of Florence and Tuscany elects a “parliament” of 21 people. The leaders then choose a president who also serves as imam. Elzir was first elected to this position in 1992 and has been reconfirmed over the years.
The mosque, which looks like an old storefront from its entrance on Via Borgo Allegri, is no longer large enough to accommodate the Muslim immigrants arriving from Morocco, Tunisia, across the Middle East, Africa, and Albania, as well as Italian converts and second-generation Muslims. During Friday services, many of the faithful must stand in the entrance way and even outside to pray.
Elzir is working with the local government to plan the construction of a larger, purpose built mosque, and hopes to know where it can be built within a year.
In addition to leading prayers, and presiding over marriages, divorces, funerals, and religious events for the Muslim community, he believes that the “imam’s role is to work for society’s peaceful coexistence.”
He has signed and promoted a pact against terrorism, and in speaking to Muslims as well as Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, and lay Italians at interfaith meetings, he said he urges them all to “understand that there isn’t a conflict" between Islam and other beliefs.
While he has seen few instances of discrimination against Muslims in his community, he said that integration would be much easier if the Italian government changed two laws.
Elzir would like Islam recognized as an official religion, and children born in Italy to receive Italian citizenship at birth. Children of immigrants cannot currently receive Italian citizenship until they turn 18.
"Muslims in America are better integrated in society," he said, speaking about a conference he recently attended in the New York.
"I really liked hearing them say: 'We are Muslim Americans,' and this is really important because it shows that they really feel American," he said.
"We in Europe are still working to arrive at this point," Elzir said, adding that even if he tells his children that they are Italian, they actually are not, and it therefore keeps them "on the margins of society."
With a Jordanian-born wife, a 6-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and all of his duties as imam, Elzir has had to limit his eye for fashion to altering jacket designs.
“But, opening a women’s underwear boutique in Palestine remains my dream for the future,” he said.