Mosque Developer Claims A Classic NYC Background

Eight years ago, Sharif El-Gamal was just another ambitious striver from Brooklyn, casting about for career leads and dreaming of a grander future in real estate. A handful of modest deals later, he's sitting on one of the most politically charged projects in recent city history: a plan to build a 13-story Islamic cultural center, health club and mosque 300 yards from the World Trade Center memorial. At age 37, El-Gamal now finds himself being castigated daily on network television as everything from an insensitive agitator to an Islamic supremacist. The whirlwind has, by all appearances, caught him by surprise. El-Gamal referred interview requests for this article to his publicist, who said he needed more time to gather information. In the few interviews he has done, he has insisted that when he set out to buy a building for the YMCA-style center four years ago, he never gave a thought to its proximity to ground zero. Even after criticism of the project moved from the right-wing blogosphere to mainstream newspapers and television, he appeared to take the hostility lightly. Sounding more like Donald Trump than an Islamic ideologue, he told the cable news channel NY1 in a recent interview that the controversy might actually help fundraising for the center, which he said would be "an iconic building" and which has a projected cost of over $100 million. "Absolutely," he said, grinning broadly. "I want to thank everyone for taking so much interest in this project." That kind of sarcasm is classic New York, and El-Gamal has taken pains to claim a classic city background, too. The blond, blue-eyed son of a Polish mother and Egyptian father, El-Gamal spent time as a child in Liberia and Egypt, where he said his father worked for Chemical Bank, but he graduated from New Hyde Park High School on Long Island. El-Gamal took classes at several New York colleges but never got a degree, then married a Long Island woman. In an interview with The New York Observer, El-Gamal said he