Sharif El-Gamal is the chairman and CEO of Manhattan-based real estate investment firm Soho Properties. But he’s now internationally known as the developer of Park51, a community center and Islamic prayer space planned two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The building — labeled the “ground zero mosque” by critics, a name that El-Gamal says is incorrect — has sparked a worldwide firestorm. Opponents denounce it, along with El-Gamal and Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam for the project, saying that an Islamic center has no place so close to where so many died on Sept. 11. But supporters argue Park51 promotes tolerance, and forcing it to move would go against America’s commitment to freedom of religion. Politicians — from Sarah Palin to President Obama to Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar — have weighed in on the project, and many dignitaries have sought to meet with El-Gamal.
What is your full name?
Sharif Mohamed El-Gamal. It’s a capital ‘E’ — people have been spelling it with a lower-case ‘e.’
Is it frustrating to see your name spelled wrong in the paper?
It is. But who would ever have expected that I would have gotten so much press for what I’m trying to do?
So you were surprised by the reaction to the project?
It’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy. I can’t believe that this is getting the amount of attention that it’s getting. But I look at it as an opportunity on many different levels.
It’s an opportunity to bring awareness about my religion, which is Islam; to bring awareness about my project and to get stakeholders, to get people emotionally involved.
I would say that’s been accomplished.
Yes it has, on both sides of the fence. It really shows us that we’ve opened something up that needed to be addressed. I think we’ve brought something that was suppressed to the surface. I think that we are going to be a better country for addressing this.
What is your response when people demand that you move the project [away] from ground zero?
But why? Why should I have to? I’m an American. It’s my right. This isn’t about sensitivities or anything. I don’t hold my faith accountable for what happened [on 9/11] and I don’t hold myself accountable for what happened.
Let’s back up. What is your birth date?
Dec. 23, 1972.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, in Park Slope, which is much nicer now than when I was growing up there. I lived in Park Slope. I lived in Long Island and Manhattan. I’m a New Yorker.
But you also lived abroad.
I did. I went to American schools overseas, in Alexandria in Egypt, and Monrovia in Liberia.
Where did you go to college?
I’m a college dropout. I couldn’t concentrate on finishing a degree; I think I gave up when I was 24. I went to the New York Institute of Technology, to SUNY Farmingdale, to Pace University and a couple of others. I was not a disciplined student — I’ve always been very restless.
Did you go straight into real estate after college?
I didn’t. While I was in college, I was selling stocks. I didn’t love the business. I was very good at it, but it did not turn me on. Then I got into the restaurant industry — I was waiting tables and bartending. I was also very good at that. [Laughs.]
Where did you work?
I worked at Serafina [on East 61st Street]. I tended bar at Michael Jordan’s Steak House in Grand Central Station. They say in the restaurant industry that you get these golden handcuffs. I was making six figures waiting tables and bartending and having a very flexible life. And you kind of get sucked into it because it’s fun — if you’re single and you don’t have responsibilities.
How did you get into real estate?
I just kind of realized that I needed to get serious about my life. I started out by renting apartments. However, I always wanted to sell buildings. I’ve always had a knack for being a closer — no matter what it was, whether it was asking a girl out to dinner or getting into a nightclub. I went to the commercial side and found a for-sale-by-owner. Eight months later I sold my first building. It was a 30,000-square-foot loft building. I ended up selling nine buildings that year [in 2001].
From there you got into development?
Then I segued into development and I founded Soho Properties in 2003. We’ve been very quiet and under the radar, and just making it happen.
How many properties do you own or manage?
Probably a dozen buildings all over the city.
Are you married?
I got married in 2005 to Rebekah. I have two daughters: Sarah, who is 3 and a half, and Jennah, who is 2.
What do they think about all the publicity around Park51?
It caught them completely off guard. It’s very surreal for all of us.
Do you get recognized walking down the street?
I do. Playing in the park with my kids, people have been coming up to me. On the subway people are saying, “Stand strong.”
Haven’t you gotten negative reactions as well?
There have been death threats, some very scary stuff.
Where do you live?
On the Upper West Side, and we spend time in East Hampton.
Tell me about the religious awakening that led to your involvement with Park51.
When I got into real estate, I made a transformation in my life. It really happened after 9/11. After 9/11 I was curious about my faith.
Were you religious growing up?
Holidays — that type of religiousness. After 9/11, I just reconnected with my faith. I took my faith before for granted. But after 9/11, I really jumped into it and started understanding what Islam means.
What has been the most upsetting thing for you about the response to the project?
There has been a deception by the forces of evil — I’ll just call it that — saying that this is the “ground zero mosque.” One, it’s not a mosque. Two, it’s not at ground zero. There was a narrative that was built in to provoke and sensationalize a topic that should have not gotten the attention that it got.
Which publications have been the most fair to you?
The New York Times has been pretty good to us. MSNBC, Keith Olbermann, Anderson Cooper, CNN has been pretty fair. Fox has just the most bizarre agenda in the world. The New York Post and the Daily News are just tabloids who will write anything to get a paper sold.
Would you like to set the record straight on anything?
This is going to be a community center. It’s going to serve the needs of Lower Manhattan. Today, Lower Manhattan has mushroomed into a residential neighborhood — there are over 50,000 residents. I saw this as an opportunity to build a center to serve the Muslim community that needs a prayer space, but also at the same time to build a world-class community center like the Jewish Community Center or the 92nd Street Y, with robust programming and phenomenal athletic and recreational facilities. … There’s such an ignorance and misperception of what Islam means. And I hope that this project will start educating people about my faith system and my beliefs.
Who have been some surprising supporters and opponents?
Just today, [former] Governor Pataki came up to me and said that I have to move. We were in a reception area, both going to separate meetings in the same building. He recognized me and he came up and said that I need to move. And then an hour later, I’m walking down Park Avenue South and who do I recognize but Ben Linus from “Lost.” I go up to say that I’m a huge fan. I ask him his thoughts. He got really passionate and inflamed, and said, “We’re behind you, don’t move.” That’s just today. Tony Blair wants to meet with me this week; I canceled a meeting with Bill Clinton [it’s being rescheduled]. I need to keep reminding myself that I’m a real estate developer and that I need to focus on the action of making this come together and getting it built. Because all this talk is just talk.
Are you worried about fund-raising in this economic climate?
Well, we’re about to launch a very aggressive fund-raising campaign. Listen, Michael Moore raised $50,000 for us. I don’t even know him [and he raised] $50,000. I think that nothing is going to be easy, but it’s going to be extremely rewarding.
How do you think [the Park51 project] will impact your future career as a developer?
I think the exposure is priceless. Everyone knows who I am. I’m looking for the next building that I’m going to buy. I want to buy one building before the end of this year, a trophy asset this time, up to $100 million. Everyone is showing us real deals. The amount of money that wants to come into a real estate deal for us right now is unbelievable.
Are you looking at distressed assets?
I think the word “distressed” is overrated. I don’t think there’s anything in distress in New York City. I think that everyone realizes that this isn’t 1990. We’re really focused south of 96th Street in Manhattan, not in the boroughs. I think the office market is where we want to focus.
What is your relationship like with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf — you two have publicly expressed differences of opinion about the project.
He’s a visionary and I’m a real estate developer. The media is looking to create more stories out of this. There isn’t a story there. He married my wife and I. He’s a good friend.
What is something people don’t know about you?
One thing that people might not know about me is that my mother, God rest her soul, was Polish Catholic. And I have more Jews for friends than Muslims.
What’s that painting?
It’s an Arabic Allah, which means God. My wife drew that.
Is she an artist by profession?
No, she takes care of me now. But before that she was an artist, a trained chef, she was in the jewelry business. Rebekah is very dynamic.
How did you meet?
I stopped her on the corner of 23rd and Sixth Avenue and I asked her out to dinner. We were complete strangers.
She said yes right away?
I worked for a little bit. I got her number. I didn’t beat around the bush. I said, “Hi, can I take you out to dinner?” She just looked at me and she just started laughing. And eight months later we were married. And she’s my soul mate.
Can you comment on the recent reports of your past arrests, for assault and other charges?
I did make mistakes in my life, mistakes that I’m not proud of. But I’ve never shied away from my past. And I believe that the mistakes have empowered me to be the person that I am today.
What about reports that your company was evicted from your office at 552 Broadway?
That was another inaccuracy. There was no eviction that took place. … Everyone is trying to get their 15 minutes on my back right now and on the back of this deal.
Would you be open to opportunities outside of real estate — like being on a TV show?
I’m very focused on building my career in real estate. I think I need to make my first billion first.