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    Muslim festival cuts through the stereotypes

    Malden MA 9/17/17 Karter Zaher (cq), left and Jae Deen (cq) form the hip hop group Deen Squad performing at the second annual New England Muslim Festival at Cambridge Health Alliance. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)
    Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
    Karter Zaher (left) and Jae Deen of the hip hop group Deen Squad performed at the second annual New England Muslim Festival.

    MALDEN — The percussive rhythms of traditional Syrian music and the smells of shawarma and samosas filled the air Sunday afternoon as thousands gathered for a celebration of Islamic culture intended to build bridges across faiths and erode negative stereotypes of the religion.

    “Just come hang out with a Muslim,” said Malika MacDonald, an organizer of the second annual New England Muslim Festival and director of the Massachusetts field office of ICNA Relief, a disaster aid agency. “Realize we’re human, too.”

    MacDonald said the event was intended to be informative for those unfamiliar with the faith, with opportunities for people to ask questions about Islam, “but this is not a religious festival; it is a cultural festival.”

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    “There is an educational purpose for people to come and explore Muslim cultures, to see that we have fun just like everyone else,” MacDonald said. “We eat, we party just like everyone else.”

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    Malden resident Naomi Brave came to the festival with her husband, Clay Larsen, and got a temporary henna tattoo on her hand.

    “I think it’s beautiful,” said Brave, 55, as she admired the elaborate, hand-painted design. “It’ll be interesting to go back to work on Monday with this.”

    Festival-goers left with henna tattoos but also with copies of the Koran to read at home, with new scarves, or purses, or rugs, and often with bellies full of gyros, falafel, baba ganoush, and halal burgers and hot dogs.

    Brave said she returned to the festival for a second year “to learn about my Muslim neighbors, get some good food, and hear some good music.” She said she was proud of Malden for hosting the festival and for being so welcoming to residents from many countries and faiths.

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    Like several other festival-goers, she bragged about the diversity of Malden High School, where the native languages of the students number in the dozens.

    For non-Muslims, like Brave and Larsen, it was a day to explore another culture. For Muslims like Souad Belkessa, it was also a chance to connect with old friends from the city’s sprawling Muslim community.

    Belkessa, 39, is an immigrant from Algeria who lived in Revere before settling 14 years ago in Malden, where she is raising four children and says she has always felt welcome. Belkessa said when she began wearing a hijab, or head scarf, in 2003, the community treated her the same as it had before.

    “I see a difference when I go out of state, but not in Malden,” she said. “That’s why I love it here. Nobody treats us any different.”

    Mohammad Oubaha, 3, watched as his grandmother prayed at the festival.
    Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
    Mohammad Oubaha, 3, watched as his grandmother prayed at the festival.

    Weymouth resident Hajj Wafaa, 45, went to the festival to introduce visitors to Arabic calligraphy, executing their Arabicized names in elegant swoops and dashes of ink.

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    “I believe the arts can put people together, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or faith,” said Wafaa, who left Iraq as a refugee during the Gulf War in 1991 and came to the United States in 1997. “The message of me as an artist in the world is ‘Let’s come together . . . let’s care about each other.’ ”

    At the booth for Muslim Love Clothing Co., Ayesha Kazmi and her husband, Jay Kelly, showed off T-shirts and baby onesies. “Everything is so much about countering hate, countering Islamaphobia,” said Ayesha Kazmi, 41, of Dorchester, whose parents immigrated from Pakistan in the 1960s. “We’re just up for celebrating our Muslim identity and being proud of it.”

    One shirt included a cat with a red ribbon and the words “Halal Kitty” instead of “Hello Kitty.” Another shirt said “Radical Islam” and featured an illustration of a woman on a skateboard in a burka. In a wink toward the Trump administration, a red shirt said: “Make America Great Insha’Allah,” which means, “God willing,” in Arabic.

    On a onesie were the words “little choosa” and the image of a baby chick. The word means “baby chicken” in Urdu.

    “It’s just the word for ‘adorbz,’ ‘totes adorbz,’ ” Kazmi said, using American slang for “totally adorable.” Kazmi recently gave one of these onesies to a friend who told her how excited she was for her children to wear Muslim-proud clothes.

    “That was a reinforcement that we’re doing the right thing.”

    Excited children could also be found at the festival’s bounce house, super slide, and face-painting table. Girls in colorful head scarves played games and chased friends around the festival or danced along with performers near the stage.

    “My kids loved it last year,” said Mohanad Mossalam, 35, whose wife is one of the event’s organizers. “We decided to have them come again. I love the diversity represented.”

    His 3-year-old son’s face was covered in red paint, transforming the small boy into Spider-Man.

    Qasim Muhammad, 64, and his wife brought their 6- and 7-year-old sons to the event with a specific and important purpose: “They were born and raised here. They’re American citizens. I want them to feel this is their home and their city.”

    Noureen from Noureen Design in Framingham did a henna painting on a festival-goer’s hand.
    Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
    Noureen from Noureen Design in Framingham did a henna painting on a festival-goer’s hand.

    Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Cristela Guerra can be reached atcristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.