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South Brunswick Hosts 4th Annual Islamic Games

by Arun Venugopal
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NEW YORK, NY June 01, 2010 — Over Memorial Day weekend, as the hordes descended in various states of undress upon the shores of New Jersey, about 1,600 Muslim athletes took a different tack: they headed inland to a nondescript high school sports complex in South Brunswick. They were there to participate in the 4th annual Islamic Games, the largest event of its kind in the country.

The event has attracted not only more athletes each year, but corporate sponsors as well. It was started by Salauddeen Nasarudeen, an ad man of Indo-Caribbean extract who seems equally comfortable in shorts and baseball cap as he is observing regular prayer.

"We try not to make it religious," he said of the Games. "We try to do something that is sporty, that is fun, that is exciting. We bring colors, we bring music--we bring sponsors! We do all this nice stuff. Because at the end of the day America is in a whirlpool of entertainment and Muslims are also in that whirlpool."

As he spoke, Arabic music floated over the lawns where the athletes competed in everything from soccer and tennis to cricket, arm wrestling and basketball. Nearby a pair of girls volleyball teams faced off across the net. The players on one team were dressed in jeans or track pants and wore long-sleeved T-shirts under matching black T-shirts. Everyone had covered their hair with headscarves. It was a warm day but if they were hot, they didn't let on.

"We're really good," one girl told me, giggling at her own bravado as her friends listened in and giggled in harmony. "We won first place volleyball every year. We don't know about this year, but Inshallah we'll do good."

A mother of one of the players, Fidaa Abuhaltam, was happy to be at the event. But she did worry about exposing the girls to the eyes of strangers.

"I'd rather have adults with them. Because Shaitan"--Satan--"is always there with us and we can always be misled in many ways. Even right now. I'm against the girls being out here. I'm not too happy that the girls are playing volleyball out. I rather have them inside. I believe we shouldn't be jumping too much."

That parental concern explains why some of the events--girls basketball and martial arts--were held indoors, off limits to any men. But the Islamic Games clearly fulfilled a need. This year registration was up by 20 percent overall, but among female athletes it was up 40 percent. Players and parents alike seemed reassured by the values of the event. That included the 1:30 pm prayer break, when hundreds of athletes and elders assembled on the football field and bowed down in the same direction, chanting "Allahu akbar."

The diversity of the Islamic Games was fairly striking--the participants, according to organizers, came from 32 national backgrounds including the countries of South Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Africa and Bosnia. One person who stood out was a tall, blond, non-Muslim referee, Eric Hall. He felt that compared to mainstream sporting events, the Muslim athletes here were unfailingly polite.

"They feel they can sit down and talk to the person on the other team," he said, as players bopped a volleyball around him, "and say something to them that would be positive, instead of saying 'We lost, we won,' and going on to the next game."

He wasn't the only one to sense that difference between a mainstream sporting event and a Muslim one.

"Just yesterday I was in the park playing basketball with a bunch of non-Muslims," said Omowale Abdulwali, an African American who had converted from Christianity. "And they were cursing at one another, because they're upset about losing a game. Talking about their mothers and inviting each other to their private parts and all that. Us Muslims, we have the same competitive spirit, but we remain within the guidelines."

As the Games wound down, there were occasional scenes of celebration, as teams claimed their respective honors. One of them called themselves JB's Babyz (after their coach, JB) and had come from Westchester to compete in the Under 14 girls volleyball event. The girls excitedly posed with their trophy as their relatives snapped photos. One of them, Zubaida Kareemuddin, said her elders were initially worried the girls might get hurt playing volleyball. Eventually though, they too got in the spirit of the competition.

"They were praying for us all night and today," she said. "And even when we were playing the game, they were sitting there, all eager and they were praying for us. And it was really nice to see that. It just touched our hearts."

(Photos by Arun Venugopal)

 
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