At the headquarters of the New York Police Department, in a high-ceilinged, wood-floored room, Erhan Yildirim is speaking to a group of officers.
As he lists facts about Islam, they crack their gum and tap their feet. Yildirim is slighter, shorter and snazzier — in a sleek Turkish-made suit — than most of his audience, and he speaks with a Turkish accent to their Brooklynese.
Yildirim, as the part-time civilian liaison of the NYPD to Muslims throughout the city, is a man assigned to bridge cultures.
“I’m the PR,” says Yildirim, and the PR goes two ways: At once, he is trying to redeem the name of the police department to Muslims and the reputation of Islam to police officers.
Of course, the misunderstandings may also go every which way, even for Yildirim, a funeral director by trade who may or may not have become conversant in cop talk but who also doesn’t speak the languages of the majority of immigrant Muslims in New York.
Arabs and South Asians form the largest immigrant groups among the city’s 600,000 Muslims, according to a Columbia University study — and Yildirim, born in Germany to Turkish parents and educated at an Islamic high school in Istanbul — knows only prayers and hellos in Arabic and no Urdu at all.
He says that’s no problem — “For Muslim culture you know everything about them because you believe in the same faith. I know the terminology, I know the culture really well. I know the greetings.”
When Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly holds meetings at mosques, Yildirim is right there at his side, fussing with the microphone and supplying the bottle of water. Yildirim briefs the commissioner biweekly and has produced a video and cheat sheet on Islam for police.
It’s a patchwork job the commissioner improvised in the wake of September 11, 2001, when government officials combed Muslim neighborhoods for evidence of terrorist activity and immigration violations, and Muslims became fearful.
Kelly hoped that Yildirim could help reduce friction. “That includes making certain we’re doing everything we can to learn about the culture and communicate that to our police officers,” Kelly said. “And also to allay some concerns in the Muslim community that they were being targeted.”
Yildirim, 33, arrived in New York at 21, became active in the mainly Turkish Fatih Mosque in Brooklyn, and then opened a Muslim funeral business.
He has washed, shrouded and repatriated the bodies of Poles, Yemenis and Bangladeshis. In any community, funeral directors are likely to rise to prominence. Among New York’s ethnically diverse Muslim immigrants, Yildirim earned special regard for his willingness to accommodate the funeral rituals of any nationality and smooth a body’s way home with officials of any airline or embassy.
Yildirim began volunteering at the 66th Precinct in 2000. Police would call him about a noise complaint, for instance, when the call to prayer was booming from loudspeakers outside a mosque, said Community Affairs Detective Michael Milici, who worked with him then.
Things are more complicated now, for Muslims and for Yildirim.
On a recent afternoon, he turned his 2007 Audi SUV right across three lanes of traffic on Manhattan’s Second Avenue and pulled up in front of a Turkish restaurant on 34th Street. The restaurant owner had a dispute with another restaurant owner, and Yildirim had to mediate, he said. When the man wasn’t there, Yildirim ordered lunch.
Soon he was enjoying labni, a white cheese, and lahmacun, a kind of pizza with lamb. But his cellphone rang, and while he was talking, so did his BlackBerry, so he had a phone on each ear and his conversations switched from Turkish to German to English. He had to ship an Albanian body to Montenegro and there was no room on the flight. At one point, when the cellphone rang again, he passed it to the waiter to answer for him.
It’s difficult juggling business with part-time police responsibilities, said Yildirim, but he draws a line between the two: “I don’t want anyone to say Erhan is using his job to get funerals.”
Asked if he ever encounters hostility because he works for the police, he interrupted: “No!”
But even Muslim leaders who themselves liaise informally with police say they are nervous about law enforcement’s intentions. Wael Mousfar, president of the Arab Muslim American Federation, noted that undercover agents have surveilled his mosque and others, and written down license plate numbers. Throughout the city, many Muslims have been questioned, arrested or deported on immigration charges. At community forums, Muslims complain there are so many police in their neighborhoods that they even receive a disproportionate number of traffic tickets.
And then there is Yildirim.
Mousfar said he hopes Yildirim will be a conduit for better relations with police. “We need a good ear and a person who could deliver the message.”