If you threw up your hands in frustration, swore off the NBA this past summer and haven’t paid attention since then, you may be surprised to learn that the league is still up and running after Tuesday’s regular-season openers.
Back in July, when former league MVP Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder to sign with the defending Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors as a free agent, there was a loud segment of fans and media that predictably overreacted and declared the NBA dead and buried.
By adding one of the league’s best players to one of the league’s best teams, the Warriors had allegedly stacked the deck and were now playing unfair. They had allegedly made all but a couple of the league’s 30 teams irrelevant and incapable of truly competing for a championship.
Parity no longer existed. Competitiveness was a thing of the past. The NBA was finished, and KD drove in the final nail.
Thing is, we’d heard this same kind of morbid diagnosis six years ago, back when LeBron James and Chris Bosh left Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, to join Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat. That collaborative power move created what became known as a “super-team,” and it was — like Durant going to Golden State — also viewed at the time as something that would destroy the league as we’d known it.
And yet here we are today, and the NBA is not only surviving, but thriving.
Television ratings are up, jerseys and sneakers and other merchandise is still flying off the shelves, league and team revenues are skyrocketing — just look at some of the huge contracts that were signed in free agency this past summer.
There have been five different NBA champions in the six years since LeBron and Bosh’s 2010 move, so parity is apparently still a thing.
And what happened on this season’s opening night? Durant and the Warriors were blown out by the San Antonio Spurs. So contrary to earlier reports, there are some teams out there who can beat the Bay Area’s super-team.
Another team that could pose a challenge to the Warriors is Durant’s former team, the OKC Thunder. While they’re obviously less talented without Durant, OKC is still a threat led by superstar point guard and MVP candidate Russell Westbrook.
Two of Westbrook’s teammates and possible Thunder starters are Muslim: center Enes Kanter and forward Ersan Ilyasova.
Both players are of Turkish origin and both played professionally in Turkey earlier in their careers. While Ilyasova has not been very public about his faith, Kanter is perhaps the league’s most outspoken Muslim player when it comes to religious and cultural issues.
Kanter used social media to both support fellow Muslim NBA player Dion Waiters and educate the public about Islam in the aftermath of a 2014 incident in which Waiters was (wrongly) reported to be sitting out the U.S. national anthem due to his Islamic beliefs.
Kanter has also helped introduce some members of the NBA fraternity and the NBA fan base to halal food.
And unfortunately, Kanter headlines this offseason when he revealed that he had received death threats due to his criticisms of the Turkish government. There were also reports that Kanter’s family in Turkey had disowned him over these politics, and that Kanter was considering changing his last name.
Kanter, Ilyasova and Waiters are three of the almost dozen Muslim players who are on NBA rosters as the league’s 2016-17 season gets underway:
Small Forward / Power Forward
Portland Trail Blazers
Aminu was supposed to play for the Nigerian national team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. But he pulled out on the eve of the Games, reportedly due to the Nigerian sports federation being unable or unwilling to insure his NBA contract.
Totally understandable from a business perspective, but that decision probably cost Aminu some fans in his parents’ native country. It certainly cost Nigeria its best chance to make some noise in the Olympic tournament.
Aminu now turns his focus to helping the Blazers make some noise in the NBA’s tough Western Conference.
In his first season with Portland (his fourth NBA team since being drafted 8th overall in 2010), Aminu averaged a career-high 10.2 points per game to go with 6.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals. The Blazers were one of the league’s surprise playoff teams and advanced to the conference semifinals before losing to the Warriors. In that series, Aminu stepped his game up from the regular season and averaged 17.2 points and 8.4 rebounds.
Now entrenched as an important part of the Blazers’ foundation, Aminu has been picked by some league analysts as a player poised to have a breakout season.
New Orleans Pelicans
It seemed like every player on the Pelicans missed a significant portion of last season with one injury or another. By missing “only” 14 games with a calf strain, Asik was something of an iron man by NOLA standards. His 64 starts (in 68 appearances) were the most of anybody on the team, even more than superstar power forward Anthony Davis, whose injuries limited him to 61 starts.
Asik also led the Pelicans in field-goal percentage last season, connecting on 53.3 percent of his shots. That number is so high mostly because Asik doesn’t shoot the ball often. When he does, it’s usually on a put-back of an offensive rebound or when a teammate finds him open right in front of the rim.
Defense and rebounding (6.1 rpg) are Asik’s calling cards. The 30-year-old from Turkey has carved a niche in the NBA as an enforcer / “dirty work” complement to All-Star big men such as Joakim Noah in Chicago, Dwight Howard in Houston, and now Davis in New Orleans.
Center / Power Forward
If Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns is supposed to be the next Tim Duncan, Dieng would do pretty well for himself to emulate a late-career version of David Robinson, the other half of the Spurs’ “Twin Towers” tandem with Duncan.
Double-digit points, seven or eight rebounds, and doing whatever else it takes to help KAT shine on the front line will earn Dieng long-term job security in the league. Matching last season’s stat line of 10.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game as a part-time starter would be great for the 6-foot-11 Dieng.
Dieng started at center in Minnesota’s season opener, with Towns at power forward. Between now and the end of the season Dieng could also find himself playing power forward, with Towns at center. The Wolves are a young team trying to find its identity in the wake of franchise cornerstone Kevin Garnett‘s retirement, so roles are still being defined.
Whatever his role may be, Dieng will be an impact player for the up-and-coming Wolves with his rebounding, defense and underrated passing skills.
Last season was supposed to be the one in which Faried made the leap from All-Star potential to All-Star production. And so was the season before that. In fact, I wrote almost exactly that same opening sentence about Faried in this space one year ago, and the leap still hasn’t happened.
Faried was good last season. He averaged 12.5 points and 8.7 rebounds, almost exactly the same numbers he put up the previous year. But the Nuggets again weren’t within shouting distance of a playoff spot, and Faried’s name again popped up in trade rumors constantly.
As he enters his sixth NBA season, Faried (again) seems to be at a make-or-break time crossroads. Will he establish himself as an untouchable (i.e., un-trade-able) piece of Denver’s rebuilding project, or will the Nuggets send the 26-year-old and his sizable salary somewhere else to focus on their younger players? Denver head coach Mike Malone has already changed Faried’s role, deciding to bring him off the bench as the sixth man.
Faried’s boundless energy, uncommon athleticism and marketable, fan-friendly persona should make him attractive to just about any team in the league if they’re willing to pay the price. They, like the Nuggets, are surely waiting to see if or when Faried will put it all together and begin fulfilling his potential to be great.
Small Forward / Power Forward
Oklahoma City Thunder
Ilyasova is on his third team in the last year. In June of 2015, he was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Detroit Pistons. Despite starting every game for Detroit (an eventual playoff team) through the first half of the season, Ilyasova was traded to the Orlando Magic and finished the season coming off the bench for a Lottery team.
Then in June of 2016, Orlando traded Ilyasova (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) in a draft-night deal to Oklahoma City.
Standing 6-foot-10 with a tough mindset and having developed into a good outside shooter, Ilyasova can play small forward or power forward. He is part of a three-man forward rotation with defensive stopper Andre Roberson and rookie Domantas Sabonis, and could wind spending a lot of time in Durant’s old position or playing closer to the basket as a power forward.
Either way, by landing on the Thunder, Ilyasova appears poised for the first time in his NBA career to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Kanter averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season coming off the bench, and finished third in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award voting. He ranked fifth in the league in offensive rebounds, fourth in field-goal percentage and was 10th in Player Efficiency Rating.
Kanter is good enough to start for about half the teams in the league, but in OKC he basically shares the center position with Steven Adams, his comedy partner in the fan-favorite duo known as “The ‘Stache Brothers.” Kanter is the better offensive player, while Adams excels on defense. Although Adams starts and Kanter is the backup, Kanter only played four fewer minutes per game than Adams last regular season. That gap widened in the playoffs, however, with Adams playing about 12 minutes per game more than Kanter.
While it’s common for bench players who are good enough to start to become frustrated and either ask for a trade or leave in free agency, Kanter seems happy and settled in OKC. He is entering the second year of a four-year, $70 million contract, and he has said the team’s efforts to accommodate his Muslim faith have helped him feel at home.
Mejri is an NBA anomaly in more ways than one.
Following a nine-year career overseas, Mejri was a 29-year-old NBA rookie last season. He is also the first-ever NBA player from Tunisia, a Muslim-majority country in North Africa.
Before coming to the NBA, the 7-foot-1 Mejri played pro ball in Tunisia, Belgium and Spain; most recently for Real Madrid in Spain’s top pro league. He saw limited action with the Mavericks in his first NBA season, averaging 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds while appearing in less than half of Dallas’ games.
He showed some flashes at times when he did get extended playing time, though. Mejri had three double-doubles during the season — including a 13-point, 14-rebound, 6-block stat line in a March victory over the Trail Blazers — five games with at least three blocks, and he had a 12-point, 3-block game against the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.
Kenneth Faried could be traded by the Nuggets at some point this season, but the odds are slim that Denver is going to part ways with Nurkic, a 22-year-old from Bosnia & Herzegovina who has been pegged as a vital part of the team’s rebuilding plan and youth movement.
Injuries limited Nurkic to just 32 games last season, in which he averaged 8.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. The highlight of his season was a 15-point, 10-rebound, 5-block effort in a January victory over the Timberwolves, where in just 22 minutes on the court Nurkic played better than Towns (the eventual NBA Rookie of the Year), Dieng and Garnett.
Like Kanter and Dieng, Nurkic is half of a twin-towers tandem with another budding young standout, 21-year-old Nikola Jokic from Sebia. In the Nuggets’ season opener, Nurkic and Jokic started side-by-side.
What looked like a delusional and ill-advised declaration one year ago worked out perfectly for Schroder.
In an interview with German magazine Bild prior to last season, Schroder basically said that if the Hawks weren’t going to make him their starting point guard, he wanted the team to trade him. Considering that Atlanta already had a certified All-Star starting point guard in Jeff Teague who had just led the team to a 60-win season and a Southeast Division title, it seemed highly unlikely that Schroder would get that starting job. I wasn’t the only person who predicted it was only a matter of time before Schroder was traded by the Hawks.
But shortly after a season in which Teague averaged 15.7 points and 5.9 assists, Schroder averaged 11.0 points and 4.4 assists, Atlanta’s win total dropped from 60 to 48 and the team was swept out of the playoffs for the second year in a row by LeBron and the Cavaliers, the Hawks traded Teague to the Indiana Pacers and handed the keys to Schroder.
And then on Wednesday, Schroder and the Hawks agreed to a four-year contract extension worth a reported $70 million.
So what will the 23-year-old Schroder do now that he’s officially the man in Atlanta?
Schroder is adept at getting past his defender into the lane and creating shots for himself or for his teammates. He is a long and active defender. He needs to improve his jump shot and his ability to finish when he gets to the rim, but he has serious potential to be an All-Star like Teague was for the Hawks. And he’ll be getting help from 8-time All-Star center and 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, whom the Hawks signed as a free agent.
Schroder is going into this season as a popular pick to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and could even challenge for a spot in the All-Star Game.
Small Forward / Power Forward
Two seasons ago, Teletovic almost lost his basketball career and his life when he was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs — the same condition that is currently this/close to ending Chris Bosh’s career and nearly took the life of former college football player Shaykh Qasim Hatem.
That is almost all forgotten now, as Teletovic was medically cleared to resume his career and played all of last season for the Phoenix Suns without incident, averaging a career-high 12.2 points and hitting a career-high 39.3 percent of his three-pointers.
Over the summer, Teletovic signed a free-agent deal with the Bucks, where he’ll be expected to stretch the floor as a catch-and-shoot specialist for a squad that features young and athletic offensively talented players such as Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greg Monroe and rookie Thon Maker.
Over the past two seasons, Waiters has played alongside some of the best scorers in the league: He was teammates with LeBron and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, then with Durant and Westbrook in OKC.
Now he is replacing another one of the league’s best scorers as he assumes the Heat shooting guard job vacated by future Hall of Fame superstar Dwyane Wade.
Wade surprisingly left Miami as a free agent this past summer to sign with the Chicago Bulls. Suddenly needing to fill a huge void on the roster, the Heat signed Waiters. During a free-agency period in which salaries skyrocketed and even little-used role players were signing contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, Waiters signed an oddly modest two-year, $5.9 million deal.
But if Waiters (9.8 ppg) takes advantage of this opportunity and plays like the explosive scorer he was at Syracuse University that was picked 4th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, he’ll put himself in position to sign his own massive contract soon enough.
Retire Aladdin To The Ends Of The Earth
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.
Making Eid Exciting for Kids
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’
Surprise your kids with gifts
“Exchange gifts, as that will lead to increasing your love to one another.” Prophet Muhammad ﷺ [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.
The Fast and the ¡Fiesta!: How Latino Muslims Celebrate Ramadan
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.
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.
Note: A modified version of this article appeared in Islamic Horizons Magazine May/June 2019 edition.
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