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5 Reasons The Muslim World Needs a Jon Stewart

Dr Muhammad Wajid Akhter

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There will be many who read the title of this article and think – of all the many, many things that the Muslim world does need – they’re pretty sure that a middle aged liberal Jewish comedian isn’t one of them.

And they would be wrong.

Dead wrong.

excuse-me-what

Yes, the Muslim world needs another Umar ibn Abdul Aziz and Tariq ibn Ziyad. We would be blessed to have an Uthman Dan Fodio or Muhammad Ali Jauhar.

EmelBarbie

Who am I kidding? Even Hijabi Barbie is front page news for us

But I’m here to make the case that we could also do with our own version of Jon Stewart.

jon-stewart_beard

No. This doesn’t count…

Why?

Well, here are just 5 reasons:

1. Someone who tells it like it is

Politicians and leaders often like to hide behind semantics and carefully scripted soundbites. They speak like they’re afraid of what might happen if the masses understood what was actually going on.

Probably with good reason.

Then here comes Jon every weekday evening cutting through the garbage and explaining things in simple, direct (albeit American) English.

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A dose of raw, passionate, straight-talking truth? Suddenly, college students are interested in the debt crisis or police brutality.

The Muslim world could do with a few articulate souls who manage to move beyond preaching to the converted and instead, try and reach out to the disaffected, the uninterested and the disenfranchised.

Someone who could dumb it down without the dumb part.

2. Someone who is fair

It is well known that Stewart is towards the more liberal end of the spectrum. [Understatement alert]

You would expect him to constantly and mercilessly pick on Fox News and Dick Cheney.

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He does.

But this doesn’t stop him from pointing out the hypocrisy and ineptitude of those he supports. Watching the Jewish American Liberal Stewart rip apart Israel during the last Gaza war showed he was a man of some principle.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w62Q-_upPQc[/youtube]

The Muslim world could do with leaders who are willing to tell hard truths to their home crowds just as much as they were willing to rail against their natural enemies.

3. Someone who nurtures talent

Over the years, the Daily Show has attracted young and unknown aspiring comedians and turned them into confident stars. From Steve Carrel to Steven Colbert – Stewart hasn’t just surrounded himself with sycophants but with talent that pushed him to do better.

Again, the Muslim world could do with leadership that produced more leaders rather than ever more dependent followers. How amazing would it be if the Muslim world served as an incubator for good leaders, where people were valued and flourished and…

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Sorry…

4. Someone who pushes the intellectual boundaries

If the Daily Show was to pander to its demographic, they would have movie and rock stars on every evening to plug their latest asinine movie or album. Instead, you were as likely to see an interview with Taylor Swift as with the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

not taylor swift

Stewart often nailed the balancing act of being entertaining to his audience whilst also encouraging them to broaden their intellectual horizons.

The Muslim world could do with leaders who focused not just on individual spiritual inspiration, but also on societal temporal aspiration as well.

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Translation: Where’s the Muslim equivalent of NASA?

5. Someone who tells it with a smile

Lets face it, for someone who has been on TV 4 nights a week for more than 15 years – Jon Stewart has surprisingly few gaffes to highlight. There were only a handful of anger-related meltdowns. There were definitely no unguarded moments where he “heroically” rails against an elected government, but stays silent about a coup and the mass murder of innocent people whose political viewpoint he disagrees with.

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No caption would do justice…

Whatever Jon did, he did with grace. He skewered you like a kebab and cut you up like a … kebab. However, he did so with a politeness that made it hard to dislike him.

The Muslim world could do with leaders that managed the art of making a point without making an enemy.

Conclusion 

Now some will read the above and wonder why someone who holds as many  opinions at odds with Islamic orthodoxy as Stewart should be cast in a favourable light by us. To them I say that I am not advocating taking our religion from him. In fact, the qualities described above are Islamic qualities that are rooted in our deepest traditions, yet somehow are best exemplified these days by non-Muslims like him.

js racism

You don’t have to accept his views or his politics to be a fan of the way the man simply excelled at what he did.

And what he did, was shine a searing light on the state of his nation so that maybe, somehow, some way, they might just realise that they could be so much better than they are now.

If that isn’t something that the Muslim world needs right now…then I don’t know what is.

WAJiD Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter - Doctor, Medical Tutor (Social Media, History & Medicine) - Islamic Historian - Founder of, and current board member to Charity Week for Orphans and needy children. www.charityweek.com - Council member, British Islamic Medical Association

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    M Sheikh

    August 6, 2015 at 6:03 PM

    I have to disagree for reasons Steve Almond explains so eloquently in this piece.

    http://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-jokes-on-you

    To summarize, Almond makes the case that Stewart’s brand of satire serves mainly to entertain and pacify us- when these are often major issues that require action and serious consideration. It strokes our collectively inflated egos as the smart people in America, and by confirming our position as the correct one, it maintains the divide between the liberal know it all (but do nothing) and the conservative backbone. This brand of entertainment doesn’t improve a society- it’s full service is in maintenance of status quo.

    • Avatar

      Hyde

      August 9, 2015 at 9:45 AM

      Glad I am not the only that will be overjoyed to not see his Leibowitz face on television again. Ritual satire; ‘state the issue, or rather make fun of the issue, but never give a solution’. Let’s just laugh at how the Palestinians are being treated by the Israelis.
      I’m so glad he is gone…but oh dear the liberal revolving door is always open. Culturally and politically.

  2. Avatar

    Amel

    August 6, 2015 at 6:43 PM

    How about Bassem Youssef or Dean Obeidallah?

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/09/egypt-s-jon-stewart-comes-to-america.html

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Obeidallah

    These are just two names that come to mind.

    • Avatar

      Asim Zahoor

      August 6, 2015 at 10:06 PM

      Jazakallahu Khairan for that, you saved me the effort of having to make that same exact point, the muslim version who Jon Stewart considered ” a brother”, was issued an arrest warrent by Mursi for insulting Islam. If you were to have a John Stewart muslim version of what is written in the article, it will only work in the muslim world (although unless you want to be shot by the regimes, you may not want to replicate the level of political scrutiny delivered by stewart), reason being is that for you to appeal to people about big issues in societies pertaining to governance, you need shared values, you cant exactly expect a barrel of laughs for mocking homosexuality the way John mocks homophobia, comedy is relative to the values people have, muslims in the west can only laught with their non muslim counterparts on certain things together, other there are some big value differences regarding certain big issues in the west, that are so extreme to non muslims especially in Europe, that to hold those values without advocating it is a big issue, let alone making a comedy out of it.

      • Avatar

        Zoaib

        August 7, 2015 at 12:18 AM

        Apparently criticizing corruption and extremism is “insulting Islam”? To most of our dear Muslim leaders, any point of view outside of what they preach is insulting “their religion” is akin to blasphemy. Never did I see him insult Islam and its tenets, rather he insulted those who have taken it upon themselves to lead us, yet failed to do so and become corrupted.

      • Avatar

        Mr T

        August 7, 2015 at 12:33 AM

        I wouldn’t go that far Zoaib and Asim.

        Bassem Youssef is no angel and he did transgress what is acceptable to the Egyptian society at that point. His brand of satire came at a time when Egypt was not politically stable (unlike in Stewart’s case) and was focused solely Mursi and the Ikhwan. It is true that he didn’t like SCAF’s ruling time either, but he sure didnt mind when they overturn the only democratically elected leader of that country.

    • Avatar

      Hyde

      August 9, 2015 at 9:49 AM

      Yeah they are funny as a dead fish. Comedy is the lowest forum of human communication presently. Sort of like being tickled to death. Both of these clowns have such an absurd forum of Islamic Liberalism, it becomes dark satire…how long before Muslims start making fun of the Prophet(p) trying to be edgy ?

  3. Avatar

    Mr T

    August 7, 2015 at 12:46 AM

    I have to say that I totally disagree with this article.

    The problem with Jon Stewart and his clones is that they don’t present the truth, at least not all the time and not when it opposes their liberal agenda. That includes Bassem Youssef. It is almost illiberal of them, specially Bassem, to present only one side of the argument while demeaning anybody- often conservatives- who would disagree with them or their liberal ideology.

    To give you an example, I watched his segment on on the Supreme Court oral arguments with regards to DOMA last year and the way he represented and quoted the Justices whom disagreed with redefining marriage did not sit well with me. So I went and listened to the recording of the arguments and sure enough he misquoted and misrepresented those Justices. This was the beginning of my eye opening to how sneaky he is in making those who push for a conservative thought look like idiots. The more I double check his facts and listen to the full quotes instead of the cut-and-paste job that he does to give us a cheap laugh, the less I desire watching his shows. After all its a comedy show on comedy central- or so he argues! Certainly we don’t need more misrepresentation of the truth (any truth regardless of if like it or not) in our community (locally or globally) and hence I think this article is extremely flawed.

    • Avatar

      Ahmad

      August 9, 2015 at 5:34 AM

      I agree with Mr. T.

      And this article deserves to throw into waste bin.

  4. Avatar

    Sheima Salam Sumer

    August 7, 2015 at 2:59 PM

    You make such excellent points and I cannot help but to agree with you. This article was fun to read as well as thought-provoking. JazakAllah khair.

  5. Avatar

    Khalida

    August 15, 2015 at 10:54 PM

    As-salaamu ‘alaikum,
    Having had a Jewish, liberal professor who assigned us to watch videos of Jon Stewart on business and politics, I can understand why some Muslims would disagree with this article. I personally believe that we should have a Muslim version of Jon Stewart for the same reasons Br. Wajid provided us with. Of course, our version would have to be free of unIslamic values/beliefs/ideas (not all liberal ideas are against Islam). I really think Br. Wajid would be a great candidate for this (seriously)!

  6. Avatar

    Infidelicious

    August 16, 2015 at 4:43 PM

    Why is his “Jewishness” an issue ? Why not simply agree (or disagree, if you will) “Jon Stewart is a fearless satirist, and the Arab/Muslim world could use one or two like him (or not). He is not about religion – he´s about current events, that need challenging. Greetings from a Christian by birth, human by choice

  7. Avatar

    cliveey

    January 26, 2016 at 7:47 AM

    Islam seems such an unhappy religion at times. Derision needs to be careful it can become arrogant. Slight poking fun at people and views is one thing. Slipping into tribalism and racism is anothe rand is completely wrong. It is too easy in using humour to believe taht we are always right and never query our basic assumptions. I often admire commedians whose ideas I do not agree with necause they have been clever, original and funny in putting their m,aterial together. How tolerant would you all ne to commedians who made you query your way of thinking? We all need to have our ideas challenhed and to be tolerant of different points of view.

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#Culture

Retire Aladdin To The Ends Of The Earth

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By Jinan Shbat

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Ohio, where I never felt different than the kids in my neighborhood. Sure, my siblings and I had odd-sounding names, and we spoke a second language. But to our neighbors and classmates, we were white, like them. However, that perception changed when I was 11-years-old, when a Disney cartoon movie named “Aladdin,” was released based off of a character created by a French orientalist at the height of Orientalism. At first, my siblings and I were excited because we thought Disney had made a movie that represented us. However, shortly after the movie came out, the questions began.

Are you from Agrabah?

Do you have a magic carpet? Are you going to be married off to someone your parents choose? Do you have outfits like Jasmine?” My head was swarming with all these questions, and I admit, I was intimidated. A little scared, too. I didn’t know how to answer them, and so I just shook my head and walked away.

My parents thought they were doing us a favor by buying the movie and have us watch it anytime other kids came over to play. This just created a larger divide between us, and soon my siblings and I were the “other.” It made me hyper-aware of my brown skin, my visiting foreign grandparents, and my weird-sounding name that no one could ever pronounce correctly. As I grew up, the movie and its racist, Orientalist tropes followed and haunted me. Anytime anyone found out I was Arab, they would ask, “oh, like Aladdin?” I didn’t know how to answer that. Was Aladdin Arab? South Asian, Persian? These were all different ethnicities, yet the movie seemed to be an amalgamation of them all, set in a fiction land I could not identify.

Why is Disney’s Aladdin Harmful?

It may not seem like a big deal to be misidentified in this way, but it is. And these stereotypes that have been present in Hollywood for decades are a huge disservice to our communities- all our communities- because when you misidentify a person’s culture, you are saying that all people of color are interchangeable— which is dehumanizing.

With the new release of the live action version, “Aladdin” is reinforcing the trauma and obstacles we have had to fight for the last 30+ years. The addition of a diversity consulting firm made Disney look good; it showed good faith on their part to receive feedback on the script to try and improve it.

However, issues remain with the original story itself, and no amount of consulting will change that.

Although the Aladdin remake was marked by controversy over Disney “brown-facing” its white cast, and despite original Aladdin’s racist history, last weekend Disney’s live-action version soared to $207.1 million globally. Money experts tell us that the remake success comes from the “power of nostalgia”- that is, the film’s ability to connect with feel-good memories.

The original production is the second highest grossing film project in Disney history. Last weekend, millions flocked to the remake in record numbers, despite critics’ negative and mixed reviews.

The accompanying Aladdin Jr. play is also a major concern, sales of which will skyrocket because of the film. Disney only recently removed the word ‘barbaric’ in its description of Arabs in the opening song. Many more problems abound, but Disney promises through its licensing company, Music Theatre International, to keep the concepts explored in the original production intact.

A Whole New World Needs Less Anti-Muslim Bigotry

From my perspective, as an organizer that fights a huge Islamophobia network in my daily work, it would be a disservice to my work and our community to sit by and allow racist, Islamophobic, orientalist tropes to make their way into our theaters, homes, and schools. What exactly is not a big deal in this movie? The depiction of Arabs and South Asians as one demographic, the storyline of forced marriage, power struggles, a black man playing a genie literally bound by chains to a lamp?

Hollywood’s history of Islamophobia needs to be rectified. There is a plethora of writers, actors and creative minds with alternative positive portrayals of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians. Our consumer appetite must shift to embrace authentic stories and images about people like me.

Aladdin is beyond repair; in its original form, it is problematic. No number of meetings with executives will fix the problems that are still prevalent. It should be retired, indefinitely, and put on the shelf with all the other racist caricatures from Hollywood history.

It’s our duty to speak out- and if you don’t believe we should, then you can choose to stay silent. I cannot.

Jinan Shbat is an organizer in Washington DC.

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Making Eid Exciting for Kids

Lail Hossain

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Ramadan and Eid are the most important holidays of our religion, but are we as parents putting enough effort into them? For those of us who live in non-Muslim countries, Ramadan and Eid can look dull in comparison to Christmas, Halloween, Easter, etc. There is little to no recognition of Muslim holidays outside of our homes and masjids.

Unlike Muslim countries, where markets, streets, television and the general population all foster a sense of connection to the month of blessing, Ramadan and Eid pass by mostly unnoticed in the circle of our kid’s friends.

The reality is that our religious festivals are competing with the attention of other more glittery celebrations of the West. We want to make Islamic festivals a real part of our children’s lives. We want to create memories, want our kids to love our festivals and our deen, so how do we inspire our kids to love Ramadan and Eid?

While I don’t believe we need to compete with our Christian neighbors, I firmly believe we have a responsibility to make all of our religious obligations meaningful and as well as fun, exciting and educational for our kids.

As we get close to Eid, here’s how can you make it memorable for your children:

Welcome Eid in your Home by Decorating

Between the fabulous DIY Eid decorating projects out there on the internet and the wide range of home décor offered by Muslim owned businesses, you have a good number of options to decorate your home during Eid.

Gone are the days of tacky Eid décor. With the selection and quality Eid décor that are available, you are sure to find something that goes with your existing home décor. Whether your style is traditional or modern, glam or chic, you’ll find some Eid decoration in a variety of color and theme to match your taste.

You’ll be surprised how lights and a garland can add the Eid spirit to your home. Involve the kids in decorating your home for Eid to get them in the mood and inspire them to love Eid. It’s always a pleasure to see the sparkle in their eyes as you turn decorating the house a family activity.

Take your children to Eid Salah

Eid salah is a fundamental part of Eid festivities. Make sure you take your kids with you for the Eid prayer. If Eid falls on a weekday, get an excused absence for your child. Most schools have a religious celebration exemptions policy and you should be able to get the kids out for the Eid salah if not the entire day.

On route to the Eid prayer, make it a family tradition to say the Eid Takbeer –

‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. La Ilaaha Illallahu Wallahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar wa Lillahil Hamd’

Teach them the spirit of giving by handing out candy or small gifts such as Eid pencils, Eid wrist bands, small favors to the kids they meet during Eid Salah.

Surprise your kids with gifts

“Exchange gifts, as that will lead to increasing your love to one another.”  Prophet Muhammad [Al-Bukhari]

Only is it a Sunnah to give gifts, children are ecstatic when they receive presents. It’s a win-win situation. I like to give Islam inspired gifts during Eid. Books are great to present, especially when you pair them with the experience of reading them together or spending some quality time doing an activity together.

For smaller kids, check out these prayer rugs and these feeding sets. For older kids, puzzles are dua cards are my go-to gifts along with some toys and stationery that they may want. If you want to keep the tradition of giving money out on Eid morning, package your bills in these beautiful envelopes before giving them out.

Plan a party for their friends

While it’s traditional for families to visit one another, a little extra effort can mean that kids get to enjoy something geared towards them. Children love kid friendly parties, let them enjoy themselves by planning something different with them. With many Muslim families opting out of birthday parties, why not throw a party for your kids on the eve of Eid (a.k.a chand raat) or Eid Day? Plan a chance for them to make Eid crafts, and decorate Eid cookies.

Making Eid exciting for children isn’t just about lights and fun, it also about building a lasting Muslim identity. In a time when Islamophobia and discrimination are the norms, we can use our holidays as opportunities to engage and invite our communities and schools in active dialogue about Muslim holidays in a positive, relevant light. This, in turn, serves to teach our own children, not only spiritual acts but also how to be progressive and active members of our society.

Eid Mubarak

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The Fast and the ¡Fiesta!: How Latino Muslims Celebrate Ramadan

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When the month of Ramadan is approaching, the Ortiz-Matos family begins to prepare the only way they know how, Puerto Rican style. Julio Ortiz and his wife, Shinoa Matos, reside in Brooklyn, New York. They are both Puerto Rican converts to Islam and their native tongue is Spanish. They have been Muslim for two decades each and married for close to 14 years. The couple has three children, ages 9, 7, and 5. Although Shinoa is also half Greek, she identifies herself as part of the ever-growing Latino Muslim population, a community that is bringing its very own sazon, or Latin flavor, to spice up Islamic holiday traditions.

Preparations for Ramadan for this Muslim familia, or family, consists of planning together with their children to get them excited about the fasting season. They discuss how they will plan out the month in order to reap its many rewards, and the husband and wife decide on a schedule so they can alternate between attending the taraweeh prayers and babysitting. With the help of their children, Julio and Shinoa make a list of foods and ingredients they will need for their suhur, or pre-dawn meals, and iftar, their dinner after breaking the fast. These feasts will feature a variety of Puerto Rican dishes such as pollo guisado (stewed chicken), sorullos (corn dumplings stuffed with cheese), pasteles (meat-filled dumplings made out of root vegetables, green bananas, and plantains), tortilla española (Spanish omelets), empandas (meat-filled turnovers), and finger foods such as guava, cheese, and Spanish olives, coupled with the iconic Ramadan dates.

Right before Ramadan, the Ortiz-Matos home is decorated with typical fiesta décor, shining lights, pom poms, and banners in Spanish. One of their most unique Ramadan and Eid traditions is dressing up in Puerto Rican cultural attire. Shinoa explains, “My husband can usually be found wearing a guyabera (Caribbean dress) shirt in different colors along with a matching kufi. My sons will also wear tropical shirts with their own kufis. This year I am planning on dressing all my children in typical jibaro (Puerto Rican country) clothing, complete with my daughter in a bomba skirt and my sons with machetes and sombreros de paja (straw hats)!” To prepare for Eid, they redecorate the house with Feliz Eid (Happy Eid) signs and fill decorative bowls with traditional Puerto Rican sweets made with coconut, passion fruit, and pineapple.

As converts, Julio and Shinoa know the isolation that new Muslims can feel during the holidays, so they also make a habit out of spending the month with fellow Latinos and converts. Not only does Shinoa want to make sure that no one is spending Ramadan and Eid alone, she also wants her children to feel a sense of belonging. She said, “This helps to reinforce the (concept of a) Latino Muslim community in the eyes of our children because even though all Muslims are brethren, it is important for them to be able to see representation in others they associate with.”

Even though they live in Brooklyn, Julio and Shinoa often attend the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, or NHIEC, in New Jersey. This mosque across the Hudson River caters to the predominately Hispanic population of Union City and its surrounding areas. Due to its location, NHIEC is the home of one of the largest Latino Muslim communities in the nation and has been catering to their growing needs by providing simultaneous Spanish interpreting of Friday sermons, an annual Hispanic Muslim Day for the past two decades, and continuous educational programs specially geared towards Spanish-speakers and new Muslims of Hispanic heritage. During Ramadan, NHIEC offers iftar events catered by local Latino restaurants, like the Peruvian eatery, Fruit Punch, or the Arab/Hispanic fusion buffet called Fiesta. They also host potlucks, in which Latino Muslim converts and veterans alike breakfast by sharing their country’s typical dishes. The mosque is decorated with streamers, balloons, and flags from all 21 majority Spanish-speaking countries.

Halal on the Hudson

Union City may be known as “Havana on the Hudson” because of its large Cuban population, however, South Americans like Ecuadorians and Peruvians are also plentiful. Nylka Vargas is a mixture of both; residing near NHIEC, this Latina conversa (convert) is a social worker by day and an active member of NHIEC’s dawah committee by night. She and her Syrian husband plan out their Ramadan by renewing their intentions, assessing their spiritual needs, crossing out to do items, cleaning, and clearing their schedules for the month. While subtle decorating is also part of the prep, Nylka prefers to set aside a quiet space at home for prayer and reflection.

It is in the mosque where she works passionately alongside other Latino Muslims to make the month of Ramadan memorable for fellow Latinos. Due to most Latin American Muslims converting to Islam, their relatives are usually non-Muslims who do not celebrate Ramadan or Eid. Nevertheless, NHIEC provides an inclusive atmosphere, where converts are invited to bring their families to break fast and enjoy the festivities. They host yearly dawah and converts Ramadan programs, an annual grand Iftar for converts with Latin dishes, converts get-together iftars, and a program called “Share Your Iftar with a Convert” to actively encourage the community to break their fast with new Muslims. They also teach Ramadan prep classes, arts & crafts for children, and organize a converts Eid extravaganza.

Nylka says, “We take much pride in bedazzling and giving our Eid Party a custom touch with all kinds of Eid decorating pieces and an entertainment combo. It is always about what the community wants.” One of Nylka’s fellow dawah committee members is Flor Maza. Flor is a Salvadorian convert and mother of three married to an Egyptian Muslim. Ramadan is an exciting and busy time for Flor, who is a full-time pastelera (baker); she caters to the NHIEC community, literally, decorating and preparing all kinds of postres (desserts), both Spanish and Arabic. She has learned how to prepare typical Egyptian dishes and sweets and alternates between these and Latin-inspired foods for iftar.

“I have not lost my culture, but I am learning from other cultures,” she joyfully explained, “All cultures are beautiful.” Flor believes that Ramadan is a time to learn tolerance, patience, compassion, and gratefulness, and to collaborate in doing good. She demonstrates this by sharing her delicious meals and confections with the community during the many NHIEC events. When asked if anything distinguishes her as a Latina Muslim, she said, “Anyone can recognize a Latino Muslim because we, Latinas, are helpful, we preserve our culture and are proud of our language.”

NHIEC is one of a few Islamic centers in the U.S. where guests can experience the festivities of Ramadan and Eid in Spanish. When the time for Eid prayer comes, the Muslim community in Union City and surrounding areas, pray outside either in a park or in a local school’s soccer field. Non-Muslim neighbors hear the Takbirat al Eid, witness the Eid prayer, and listen to the sermon that follows on the loudspeakers, while admiring huge green banners with golden letters that read, “Happy Eid, Eid Mubarak (in Arabic script), and Feliz Eid.”

A Mexican, Haitan, and Puerto Rican Ramadan

Eva Martineau-Ocasio was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and Haitian father and she was brought up speaking Spanish at home. She is married to Ismail Ocasio, a Puerto Rican who was raised Muslim in New York by convert parents. They have three girls, ages 6, 3, and 6 months and reside in Brooklyn. While they have always practiced their faith, the couple has become more diligent about making Ramadan extra special and memorable for their children.

The focal point of their Ramadan décor is a table spread with Islamic and Ramadan-themed books (some in Spanish, others in English), arts and crafts, tools, calendars, and projects they will use to celebrate Ramadan. As with the Ortiz-Matos family, great care is given to set the mood for the commencement of the Month of Mercy. As Eva explained, “We prepare ahead of time by reading books and telling stories to remind ourselves about Ramadan. We use lights, banners, and homemade decorations to make Ramadan special in our home. In recent years, my sister and I even opened a small online shop to sell some of our decor.” With her girls, the young mother, nurse and midwife student weaves prayer mats for their dolls and paints small glass linternas (lanterns) to display on their holiday table.

While other Muslim families have similar routines to welcome Ramadan, what sets the Martineau-Ocasios and other Latino Muslims apart is the way they have tailored their cultural traditions to adapt to Islamic practices. “Food and language play the largest roles in shaping the way we experience Ramadan outside of the important religious-based practices,” Eva said, “I strive to make Ramadan as special and exciting for my children as Christmas was for me growing up.” The family enjoys fast-breaking meals representative of their unique mix of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian culture. Some of their staples include tacos, fajitas, frijoles refritos (refried beans), Haitian style beef BBQ ribs, Haitian black rice, Puerto Rican arroz con maíz (yellow rice with corn), and even American Mac and Cheese.

They also celebrate with the general community and enjoy breaking fast with Arab and South Asian cuisine, as well. As a family, they attend Ramadan gatherings at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) and the MAS Brooklyn mosque in New York, where they are recognized as being Latino Muslims because of their language, Spanish, which they use with their children.

Ramon F. Ocasio, Ismail’s father and Eva’s father-in-law, shares a deeper perspective about celebrating Ramadan as a Puerto Rican Muslim of well over four decades. Ocasio was born in the Bronx and raised in El Barrio, Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. He embraced Islam in 1973. For this father and grandfather, nothing identifies as uniquely Latino in his practice of Ramadan aside from the food. He says, “My family prepares iftars featuring Latin cuisine for some masjids, both suburban and in the inner city. Just food, no unique decor. Food is the common denominator. Aside from that, there is nothing I can point to that is uniquely Latino in our celebrations.” His personal favorites are pasteles, roasted leg of lamb (a halal substitute for pernil, a traditional pork dish), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), and flan (a custard dessert with caramel sauce).

When his children were young, he admits that things were a little different, with Eid gatherings in the park that drew thousands of Muslims, trips to Toys’R’Us for presents, movies, games, and outings. “Seasons change, families grow, our method of celebrating will change with it,” Ocasio reminisces, “During a span of forty plus years, it can change quite a bit. As parents, we’ve tried our best to make Ramadan and Eids special for our children. For the most part, we have been successful.”

Ramadan for the Latino Muslims of Chicago

Another Latino Ramadan legacy is being constructed west of the Tri-State area, in the Windy City. Rebecca Abuqaoud is the founder and director of Muslimahs of Chicago and a community organizer at Muslim Community Center at Elston Avenue (MCC), and at the Islamic Community Center of Illinois (ICCI). She hails from Lima, Peru, and she and her husband, Hasan Abuqaoud, have three children. Rebecca has been involved in organizing Ramadan events for the Latino community and for Muslim women and children for many years.

One of these is the annual, “Welcoming the Arrival of Ramadan,” where female speakers are invited to present, and babysitting is provided to ensure mothers are able to attend. The dinner consists of a potluck, and attendees share their cultural dishes. Guests can choose from a variety of ethnic foods, including arroz con gandules, arroz chaufa (Peruvian rice), salads, pollo rostisado (rotisserie chicken), chicken biryani, and other Pakistani and Arab delicacies. This event began as an initiative for Spanish-speakers only, at the request of Latino Muslim women, however, it has grown to become a bilingual affair and draws anywhere from 60-80 attendees.

Rebecca is known in her community for dedicating her time to sharing her years of experience, Islamic knowledge, and wisdom with others. She said, “I really love being with my Latino sisters, I understand the help and support they need in their journey to Islam. I’ve been blessed to have knowledgeable Islamic teachers in my life and now it’s time to pass that knowledge to my new sisters in Islam; I thank Allah for such an opportunity.” Among other social events during Ramadan, Rebecca holds a Halaqa Book Club for ladies in Spanish at the ICCI, and for Eid, she assists with the Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC.

In the North of Chicago, Ramadan and Eid is a family affair, and this includes the children of Latino converts. During Ramadan, mothers are encouraged to decorate their homes and the masjid to make the season exciting for their children. In the mosque, Rebecca and other volunteers prepare fun activities for them related to Eid, such as a puppet show, decorating paper plates, creating Eid greeting cards for their families, and pretend “baking” cookies and cupcakes with play-dough. The children also enjoy listening to other kids recite the Qur’an and chatting over pizza, snacks, cake, and juice.

The Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC, sponsored also by Ojalá Foundation, is an effort that began to create a safe space for converts to celebrate Eid together. Everyone is invited to attend and can bring dishes to share. The walls are decorated for the occasion and candy-filled piñatas are set up for the children. Not only do the Latino Muslims enjoy these festivities, but also diverse members of the community who join them in the unifying celebration that is the culmination of the Month of Mercy and Forgiveness.

Feliz Eid

All the Latino Muslims who participated in this interview mentioned that the most significant aspect of Ramadan is the same across the board: to gain the maximum benefit from the intense self-reflection, fasting, constant prayer, spiritual cleansing, and dedication to the Qur’an. Cultural practices and celebrations are secondary to the religious aspect of Ramadan. However, the collective sentiment of those who converted to Islam is that they feel a sense of loss when they are celebrating Eid without their extended non-Muslim family. There is always, “something missing.”

Latino culture is hugely family-centered, and thus, holidays are often a time to reunite with relatives. Eva Martineau summed it up as this: “For converts, missing out on the family aspect of any celebration can leave us with a sense of sadness and longing.” Her suggestion, and that of other Latino Muslims is that, like NHIEC, ICCI, and MCC (in NY and Chicago), Islamic centers across the U.S. should host Ramadan and Eid events catering to not only Latino Muslims but converts in general. As individuals, fellow Muslims can also host those who may otherwise not have anyone to break the fast with, in their iftars and Eid celebrations. This will provide those newer Muslims with that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood they long for, and maybe in return, they can taste some of those yummy ethnic dishes.

Feliz Ramadan!

Note: A modified version of this article appeared in Islamic Horizons Magazine May/June 2019 edition.

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