The term “center” maybe misleading because it comes in many shapes—a converted office space, a hotel ballroom, a school auditorium, a deserted library, and when cash-strapped, even a benevolent friend’s basement. Classes are divided by curtains or benches. Everyone from office bearers to teachers to the cleanup crew are parent volunteers. For us, these centers are weekly social hubs of the community where we can foster a sense of belonging in an otherwise alien land.
The community activities hit a crescendo during a festive season, when the pangs of homesickness hit you the hardest. That’s when you realize the deeper meanings and symbolisms of the rituals you derided back at home. When just the thought of homemade kheer, or the memory of your mom’s biryani can make you well up.
In retrospect, the Eids I’ve spent on American soil have been more exuberant and vibrant than the ones I remember back home, laced as it is with a generous dollop of nostalgia. Kith and kin are replaced by fellow brethren from all over the world. Piety comes in myriad forms, from the die-hard enthusiasts who arrive at the crack of dawn to spread prayer mats in the makeshift halls, to the busy professionals who take half a day off just to attend the prayer congregation; From the ardent Koran readers to the fidgety toddlers trying to adjust their shiny headcaps. Many a time our Eid fair has been conducted on a race course ground, but even the faint horse odor never dampens the festive spirit permeating the atmosphere.
During my early years in the United States, my homesickness was made much more poignant, whenever I saw huge joint families replete with uncles, aunties, teenagers, toddlers, and their grandmothers filing into the masjid for Eid prayers. It was always a bittersweet moment when random strangers hugged and wished me “Eid Mubarak” after the duas (invocations). Through the years, some of these random strangers have become more than family to me. My family came to comprise of Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Africans and Arabs. For us ladies, Eid was the perfect excuse to flaunt our glittering shimmering ethnic wear. Some of us came in saris, some in salwars, some in abhayas and sarongs, but when all of us bowed our head in harmony before an Unseen Almighty, we were all humbled by the feeling of universal brotherhood.
After the fervent prayers and silent reflections, come the frenzied and boisterous celebrations. The whole area suddenly transforms into a carnival. Children put up plays and presentations depicting Islamic traditions and culture. Bouncy castles and ball pits cater to the children while henna booths and stalls for bangles, hijabs and salwars, bring closer everything your heart yearned for from back home.
The back home feel is further enhanced by certain staples you’d find at any household function or party. Conversations you must’ve heard a countless times from various sources. The cantakerous elder berating loudly, “You American kids are spoilt rotten. Back in my day all we got was a chavanni (a quarter) for Eid!” The vainglorious uncle lamenting, “the hardest part of Hajj for me was surviving without my Mercedes and my iPhone!” Or catty women gossiping: “As usual Jamila missed the prayer but came just in time for lunch.” “She must’ve been held up at the parlor all this time trying to get her hair in THAT shape!” Vignettes that emphasize how local, global really is.
The fringe benefits of a global family is undoubtedly the worldwide cuisine. Lunch usually is a potluck, where each family brings a dish, indigenous to their culture. All the master chefs try to out-do one another with their delectable masterpieces, and the result is a bounteous banquet table fit for a Sheikh!
Our desi biryani and haleem share shelf space with Afghani kababs, Lebanese falafel, Arabic mutabell, Indonesian satays and Malay coconut dumplings and for the smattering of Caucasian Muslims, who cannot survive our extreme spice factor, there is always pizza and sandwiches. The icing on the cake is undoubtedly the “homemade” factor, which lends authentic regional flavors that no amount of money can buy at any speciality restaurant. Those “unblessed” with culinary skills get to chip in with fruit and salad trays or get delegated to supplying paper products and cutlery.
The dessert section is a spread with the kheers, baklavas, moon cakes, phirnis, ice-creams, brownies and even cotton candy, and it’s like my sweet tooth just entered paradise!
Finally, when the festivities subside, when we can eat no more and the children start getting cranky, out come the ziploc bags, the tin foils, and tupperware. Like the spoils of war, the leftover food is distributed among the volunteers, thereby taking care of dinner and maybe even breakfast the next day.
I’ve moved around a lot. Whenever I move in to a new city, even before I unpack all my boxes, I ferret out the nearest community center. For me this is not just a place to pray and ponder. This is where I’ve spent some of my happiest times. This is where I’ve done my most fruitful work. This is where my children learn the values that I grew up with. This is where I’ve made some of my most treasured friends.
Zenobia Khaleel is a stay at home mom who dabbles in a lot of adventures (and misadventures), and is passionate about writing, traveling, acting, direction, girl scouts, and community volunteering. Some of her articles have been published in The Hindu and The Khaleej Times