News & Politics

Outside the Basilica, a Vendor Argues About Religion With Customers

Mashee, seated, wished to not be photographed from the front. Photograph by Dean Essner.

If you unknowingly stumbled upon the Pope Francis hubbub outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at on Wednesday afternoon, you’d think everyone in DC was a devout Catholic.

But this wasn’t just because of the electricity of the public, waiting with bated breath for the popemobile to zoom down Monroe Street, Northeast. No. On every street corner, spaced ten or so feet from each other, were overzealous vendors, looking to peddle pope shirts, pope tote bags, Vatican flags, and issues of the Washington Post with his holiness on the front page. Two shirts for $25. Discount deals on extra large tees. A free American flag with every copy of the Post.

Of all the merchants selling pope-related merchandise during Pope Francis’s visit to DC, Muhammad Mashee had perhaps the most complicated feelings. Mashee, who lives in Philadelphia, was selling Deer Park water out of a cooler near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday and debating with customers about religion.

Mashee is a Muslim, and he said embracing a business opportunity as rare as a visit from the Pope can be difficult if your religion doesn’t believe in his legitimacy in the first place.

“From a Muslim perspective, we believe that there’s only one creator,” says Mashee. “He created every human being to worship him, and no one shares any divinity with [God].”

Mashee’s sales tactics differed significantly from those of the other vendors, who were more aggressive in approaching pedestrians on the sidewalk to negotiate prices. One seller even followed a woman—clutching what appeared to be every kind of Pope memorabilia available under her arm—down multiple blocks on Monroe Street, Northeast, trying to persuade her to buy a shirt emblazoned with Francis’s smiling face and some inspirational text.

Mashee, though, stayed put at his perch on the corner of 8th and Monroe streets, waiting for customers to come over themselves and, if they were inclined, argue about religion.

“We’re always going to disagree,” he says. “They’ve got their beliefs. I’ve got my beliefs.”

Mashee is originally from the DC area and says he travels all over the country for business, selling merchandise at events like the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Olympics and jazz festivals. He plans to return to the District in October for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March rally.

He usually doesn’t limit himself to selling just bottled water; Mashee claims he will retail items including oils and incense if the situation calls for it.

“I’m versatile,” he says.

But on Wednesday, water was the best he could do without taking a pro-Catholic stance.

“[I’ll sell] whatever item at the time won’t violate my religious beliefs,” says Mashee.