NEW YORK — 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 got into real estate as a residential sales broker, then moved into commercial sales and in 2006 began putting together a few deals of his own with money he borrowed from banks, relatives and friends.
Today, his business portfolio is small by New York standards. It includes a handful of apartment buildings and a mid-size commercial building in Manhattan, which he bought with partners and which included a medical clinic owner whose Egyptian parents were killed on an EgyptAir flight that plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean in 1999.
El-Gamal said he came from a fairly nonreligious family but became more devout after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In an interview with New York magazine, he said that after the attacks, he "just felt like praying." He began attending a downtown mosque, then found a second one run by the imam who is now his partner in the proposed Islamic center, Feisal Abdul Rauf.
The inspirations for El-Gamal's current, controversial project lay not overseas, he said, but uptown.
When he moved to Manhattan's West Side in 2007, he and his wife joined the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, which runs a popular health club and hosts lectures, art exhibitions and film and music festivals.
The JCC, like its East Side counterpart, the 92nd Street Y, has transcended its religious affiliation to become an important cultural institution, and el-Gamal envisioned something similar downtown, but with a distinctly Muslim flavor.
As El-Gamal tells it, he dispatched a young employee named Francisco Patino to scout possible locations. Patino, a former contestant on an ABC reality game show called "American Inventor," came back with a list that included a former Burlington Coat Factory warehouse empty since it was damaged in the 9/11 attacks. It took another four years to buy the property.
El-Gamal has declined to talk in detail about financing for the purchase, which cost nearly $5 million.
He and other backers of the project have said that they haven't yet begun raising money for construction of the center, and don't yet know where it will come from. The lack of information has led to speculation that some funding might come from overseas sources interested in bringing fundamentalist Islam to the U.S.
In the past, programs and academic conferences run by two nonprofit groups affiliated with Rauf have received money from The Kingdom Foundation, a charity affiliated with one of the world's richest men, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of the Saudi royal family.
The prince has also invested heavily in American companies and donated many millions of dollars to American universities and charitable causes.
The Foundation has, to date, had no role in El-Gamal's New York Islamic center.
Simultaneously, El-Gamal has also been involved in a second mosque-building project in Harlem.
Last year, a decades-old group representing Senegalese immigrants, the Tidjani Islamic Community of New York, took out a $1.4 million mortgage and paid $1.9 million for a building it hopes to turn into a facility called the Harlem Islamic Cultural Center.
El-Gamal is listed on the center's website as a main contact for anyone seeking information about the project. He has also participated in fundraising appeals for the center, and the address of his company, Soho Properties, also appears as the mailing address for the center in some documents.
Several officials of the cultural center and the Tidjani Islamic Community did not respond to messages or declined to immediately comment.