Muslim Festival celebrates faith, sparks dialogue
MALDEN — Laila Alsharie stood in the Sunday afternoon sun near a table covered with a veritable rainbow of hijabs, calling for everyone to try on the head scarves that Muslim women often wear.
One visitor, Olivia Kirkpatrick, couldn’t stop smiling as she donned a purple-and-pink hijab that she had chosen herself. Kirkpatrick’s sister, Alessia, wore a bright blue one that was her “very favorite color.”
The two young girls aren’t Muslim — and that was precisely the point.
For Alsharie and other volunteers of the first-ever New England Muslim Festival, the hijab station on Malden City Hall Plaza represented an ideal introduction to Muslim culture.
“We organized things that make the environment friendly, so that it’s fun, and to break down the barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims,” Alsharie said. “So that they can see who we are: just regular people.”
Organizers sought to bring together the whole community in an effort to make other Muslims feel at home, to celebrate their diverse cultures, and to make sure other people knew what their religion is truly about.
Thousands flocked to the event, including Malden Mayor Gary Christenson; Nadeem Mazen, Cambridge’s first Muslim city councilor; US Representative Katherine Clark; and US Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
It began early in the afternoon with a call for prayer echoing over a stage in front of City Hall. Mazen helped man a table encouraging potential voters to register, and another table featured Muslim physicians discussing health screenings.
There was also a table with gummy watermelon candies that were made with beef gelatin instead of pork gelatin because pork is forbidden in the Muslim religion; a booth selling dozens of Korans, the main religious text of Islam; and a table peddling Islam-themed T-shirts.
Safia Mohamed, who emigrated from Kenya two months ago to attend Bunker Hill Community College, said the festival evoked something she hadn’t felt in a while: a sense of belonging.
“I never knew there were this many Muslims in Massachusetts,” she said. “Here, I’m just amazed. I really felt like, ‘I’m home.’ ”
In a way, Malden — one of the most diverse cities in New England — was an easy selection to host the event. More than 40 percent of Malden’s 60,000 residents are foreign-born, according to the US Census Bureau’s estimates for 2010 to 2014.
“My parents, growing up, told me that the point of life is to share and as a result, our world will become a better place,” said Christenson, the mayor, who read a statement in Arabic when he greeted the crowd.
Malden’s police chief, Kevin Molis, spent time chatting with people throughout the plaza, concluding conversations with a “ma’a salama,” the Arabic phrase for goodbye. He said many Muslim leaders in the city trust his department, and the department now has its first Muslim-American cadet.
Still, the city had its own bout with anti-Muslim sentiments after the Boston Marathon bombings, when a Palestinian woman who had emigrated to Malden from Syria was assaulted and harassed near Malden Center.
Despite the high-profile incident, many Muslim residents in Malden say they feel welcome here. Still, Mohammad Shadid, a director of the festival who also works with Malden’s only mosque, said he has grown tired of the disparaging perspectives he often sees in the national media.
“There’s a lot of negative images of Islam and misrepresentations of Islam,” he said. “We wanted to bring attention to our culture.”
Nichole Mossalam, another organizer, converted to Islam about 11 years ago and says people in her own family sometimes share Facebook memes that group Muslims as terrorists or dangerous people.
She confronts them, she said, because such fear stems from ignorance. Events like the festival can go a long way in changing people’s minds about Muslims, she said.
But amid such concerns, many people — like Hiba Kheloufi, a 9-year-old Revere girl — thought little about politics Sunday and simply wanted to revel in the Arabic music blasting from the speakers.
Kheloufi, who was wearing a bright blue hijab and hot pink Ugg-like boots, worships at a mosque and takes Arabic lessons, but she had never seen so many Muslims together at once.
“It makes me feel better,” she said. “I don’t really see Muslims all the time at school.”
At that moment, Miss Undastood, a Muslim rapper from New York City, began hyping up the crowd from the stage.
“How many of you love the Muslims?” she yelled. “If you think other people should love us, too, make some noise!”
With a big smile on her face, Kheloufi joined in with the cheers.