ISNA 2009: The good, the bad & the ugly…
This year’s ISNA took place in Washington DC.The last time it took place here was in 2002 directly after 9/11. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, current president of ISNA (and a sister woohoo!), talked about how much we as American Muslims as a community have gone through in these 7 years from 2002 to 2009. When she said that I definitely felt a feeling of poignancy in the air. There is no doubt we’ve been through much trauma, hardship and difficulty these last years.
So what did I love? What did I hate? What do I wish they would change? Here it is, just like years past… the good, the bad and the ugly
-The sessions this year seemed to be designed for a variety of different crowds. There were the Al-Madina brokered Sh. Mokhtar/Sh. Ninowy type sessions on things like Quranic gems. Al-Maghrib’s Yaser Qadhi and Yaser Birjas fiqhi type sessions. The Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers had their own program of multiple talks as did Turkish Muslims (where was Arabic and Urdu?). There were many ‘Meet the Author’ sessions and you could even get your CD signed by Yusuf Islam if you got lucky! There were late night (and I mean LATE night 1am) sessions on marriage and other favorite hot topics by MSA. There were also some really interesting sessions like the one of Muslims in Hollywood with Zarqa Nawaz (creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie), ‘The Blogistan’ about Muslim bloggers and Sh. Ninowy’s beautiful Burdah session. There were new sessions on things like divorce, cancer, Islamic finance, depression, recycling, eradicating malaria and domestic abuse in the Ummah. The film festival this year showed films like PBS’s ‘New Muslim Cool’, ‘Waiting for Mercy’ and ‘Journey to America’
-The bazaar has been changing over the years from people who own stores who bring their stuff — to a more boutique type of flavor. Now there are booths with designer Islamic clothes, unique Islamic products and amazing Muslim art. For some this might be a negative but I like the trend. I found some of the offerings quite lovely, even if extremely expensive.
-Saturday night instead of the big Hamza Yusuf Saturday night type of speech they had a talk show type style ofsession where HY, Yusuf Islam, Zaid Shakir and Ingrid Mattson sat on couches and discussed topics in front of the audience. Some people loved this, others hated it. I’m putting it in the good column because I liked it even though it should not have been the Sat night session or been like after it or televised or something.
- I liked that MSA had all these interesting sessions like on ‘gender relations’, ‘going against the parents to get married’, ‘how to keep a marriage going’. And I loved that these sessions were late at night no doubt aimed towards the lobby crowd.
-I also noticed people lining up at a ‘health screening’ area for free checkups. I think this is an excellent use of our resources.
-The information booths were ‘informative’. They actually knew where stuff was when I asked, which was important when there were a few football fields in between my sessions, and when a room turned out to be in a whole different building! They also had a billboard up of local halal restaurants which was very helpful.
-The graphics and logos were very professional and beautiful. It really made me feel like we’ve come a long way and hopefully will get even better in the future, iA!!
-This convention center must be built to accommodate a million people!! It’s humongous and everything was so hugely spaced out. It took forever to walk from one place to another. My feet hurt by 12 o’ clock. I saw people just finding random corners to pray instead of finding the mile away prayer area. I also took a wrong turn once and found myself next to huge cavernous sized ballrooms that were empty. There were probably tens of huge rooms like this, all empty. I mean the convention center is beautiful but the layout was ridiculously complex and I really feel sorry for any of the elders, pregnant, kids or directionally-disabled ppl (like me!) that were there. Everyone kept saying it was ‘small and not a lot of ppl’ but there were TONS of people… 8,000 in the main session, ppl all over the bazaar and hallways. The hugeness just created the ‘small’ perception. It’s just a different feeling when there are so many people in a smaller convention center, even if we are squished together it just creates a better buzz and feeling of togetherness.
-I kind of did not like that this convention was not over Labor Day Weekend. There’s just something about labor day that makes ISNA special. It’s traditionally the end of summer and the start of the new year for all students. It just feels like a time of change and it always gave us that extra motivation and high right before we all went back to school. Summer bbqs, fireworks etc just didn’t seem to fit. Perhaps over time goes on they’ll make the convention more casual and social to match the date.
-Rick Warren in the middle of the Saturday night session? Rick Warren is an evangelical Christian pastor? And they invited him to speak for an HOUR (or what felt like) at the absolute height of the convention? I mean for real why? Interfaith is all good but it just didn’t seem appropriate at all. The Saturday night session is when EVERYONE is there. This is the time we as an American Ummah are waiting for direction, for motivation, for vision, for understanding, for clarification of what this past year meant, of what’s been going on. We all look to this session as a reassurance that we’re still good and right and going in the right direction. And then they had Rick Warren speak. After that they had they brought up the awesomest speakers: Ingrid Mattson, Yusuf Islam, Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir and had them act out a talk show styled after…’the view’? And the whole thing took 5 hours. Even if it included a much deserved W.D. Muhammad tribute and award for Imam Siraj it was just way too long and useless.
-Entertainment was weak….like 3 acts: a hip hop group, native deen, and a nasheed singer from canada. 3 acts doing 3 songs each. Whatever happened to variety? And why did they put Native Deen (arguably the awesomest) second instead of the last as a showstopper. I did hear they had some kind of muslim hiphop type of concert across town that many people actually went to and paid money for?? Were they not allowed to perform at ISNA or something and if so why not? Something is wrong when artists go across town and set up their own show. Whatever happened to the ISNA that had tons of cool new acts and talents. This was the same stage that hosted Sami Yusuf and Zain Bhikha and Azher Usman as up and coming talents at one time?
-Bazaar layout was kind of strange. Instead of rows there were walls here and there, making it a complete maze and you had to try to find your way out. Maybe they were simulating the crazy Aladdin like bazaars of the middle east? They forgot the guys who yell out “Welcome! Money exchange?! Dollar? Amreekan? you have ze dollar! Come viz me! I give u good deal”.
- No Obama. Despite persistent rumors (ppl from around the country kept texting us to ask if he showed up because they heard he was coming!) he didn’t come
-$15 for a plate of rice and chicken, $9 for a salad, $6 for fries, $4 for a muffin, $3 for a soda. Yeah I hope I lost some weight because who the heck can afford to eat like that?
-So at the airports I got patted down in security ALL the times. I walked through fine each time but then I was always stopped and asked to spread my arms and legs so some woman can feel me up in public and under my scarf. It does get humiliating. And yes it does make me angry and upset. (And Yes I heard you can ask for a private room but do I really want to be interrogated alone with all my stuff and miss my flight?) When I was leaving the DC airport this security agent yelled out “V.I.T.!!! WE HAVE A V.I.T!!! Veeeee-Ayyyyeee-TEeeee!!!” and then a lady came out to pat me down. Apparently I must be a “very important terrorist” not sure what else it can stand for!!!
-They also went through all my stuff TO the convention AND back. They also opened my snacks (I cannot live thru ISNA without my chocolate chip granola bars!!)…(I forgot to count them maybe they ate some?) and they opened the honey I got for my Dad and then taped it up with big tape that said ‘INSPECTED DEPT OF HOMELAND SECURITY’. Yes I’m sure honey looks a lot like C4.
-I also wanted to take some pictures of interesting things around the airport or even of planes. I saw a lot of people doing this, but I didn’t. Why? Cuz I ain’t crazy.
-Many bazaar people did not go down on their prices. What the heck!! Prices were the same from Friday until Monday. I saw tons of booth people leaving with a lot of their stock unsold. I mean you can’t have it both ways. Either you price to sell or keep your price high and lower it by the last day. People drop major cash in the bazaar. I for one save my money to buy specific stuff there once a year. But if prices are more expensive than local Islamic stores or even their OWN stuff online (I once compared book prices at the bazaar and online for the same store) then shop keepers please listen: ppl will just stop buying! (One booth owner refused to give me a discount for buying $70 of books. He said he paid $5,000 for his booths and “hasn’t made anything”. Uh huh. And you’re charging me 70 bux for 3 books??!)
-There were two Muslim bros on my flight. I even heard one bro say salam to someone on the phone. Both ignored me Tip for guys/gals: You can say salam to someone. (They won’t think you want to marry them. For real.)
-Why did they not have any main programming after 9pm on any of the days except Friday when it went until 3am and we were all exhausted and passed out. Then they tried to fit ‘ISNA Entertainment’ into one hour at 7-8pm on Sunday and they had absolutely no program or sessions on Monday EVEN THOUGH everything says the convention is from July 3-6. Yet nothing on the 6th??. Makes no sense and pissed off a lot of people who booked tickets to leave on Monday. (Seemed like the program was created only for DC local people, so that the timings would be convenient for their attendance instead of everyone.)
- Muslim beggars (mostly mothers holding babies) asking for money outside the convention center, inside the convention center, in the bazaar (how did they afford the conference registration?). Allahu alam if they’re rip off artists or whatever. I think it’s good to give a small amount to whoever asks of you, but I feel like ISNA should set something up to help people like this.
The Simply Amazing:
-If someone wanted, they could come to ISNA and watch a movie, buy their invitations for their wedding, go to a session about marriage, buy a book of wedding contracts, by a wedding dress and gold jewelry, get their henna done, buy an apartment in Dubai, invest their money in an Islamic mutual fund, buy Islamic mosaic furniture and cushions, stained glass windows, oil paintings and framed photos for their house, buy a baby shirt that says ‘I love Ummi’ AND eat some free popcorn, fresh dates, halal gummi bears, see real bees and eat their honey, eat free chocolate from Islamic Relief and taste various fair-trade chais!!!
-Ingrid Mattson, Yusuf Islam, Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir on ONE stage together. Talking about HAPPINESS. Just amazing subhanAllah.
-A sister converting in front of 8,000 people with Imam Siraj!
-Meeting br. Hamza Perez of PBS’s New Muslim Cool documentary in person and telling him how much I loved the last words of the film. ‘They’re not from me’, he said ‘These are the words of beloved Habib Ali.’ MashaAllah.
-Hearing Zarqa Nawaz talk about how she thought up the idea of and created the characters and plot of the much loved Little Mosque on the Prairie series.
-Meeting a random older auntie at the airport from Portland, Oregon and talking for an hour about life in America and urdu poetry.
-Seeing Imam Siraj healthy and strong and as amazing as he ever was.
-Having a police escort bring us to the white house, wish us well, AND see the white house in the moonlight. (lol long story how this happened and it helped not getting arrested)
-Hearing Altaf Hussain and another brother at a realllly late night session making jokes about Muslim pick-up lines and discussing the all time philosophical question ‘what is love’.
-Seeing Muslim bloggers in person that you always read and finding they’re as funny in real life as they are in their blogs
-Hearing sh Faraz Rabbani speak about how he met his wife and hearing a hundred girls sigh in the audience.
-Running into extremelyy old friends and hearing them say ‘I saw you on the jumbotron last night and I screamed to all the people sitting around me ‘I KNOW THAT GIRL I WENT TO SchOOl WITH HER!!’
-Learning the sign for water and love and Allah from the sign-language translator womens on stage.
-Speakers at an MSA marriage session telling brothers to stop being so superficial when looking for a spouse. YESSSssssssssssss!!!! They must read my blog
-I know Chicago/Columbus/wherever gets crowded because they’re smaller convention centers. And horror of horror sessions get closed out because there is no room! (The usual culprit: putting Hamza Yusuf in a room for 200 people. For real why do they do this every year?) But you FEEL like it’s a convention, with a lot of Muslims and a lot of stuff going on and you can actually get from place to place without having to add in a 15 minute transpo buffer.
-Entertainment sessions should be organized by the entertainers themselves. They shouldhave a section in front just for younger kids. They desperately really need this stuff. It’s OK to have bad new acts. It’s a platform, let everyone do one song or something.
-Whoever came up with the film festival idea is awesome! But ISNA really needs to advertise this more and make this an integrated part of the program. There was no mention of what was playing and when. You just had to try to figure it out and somehow find the room on your own too. A non-Muslim documentary filmmaker from my local area traveled all the way there to show her film about injustices against Muslims, ‘Waiting for Mercy’, but only a handful of people showed up to see her film How about this: Show the movies across all three nights!! Like in the 10pm-midnight slots! Have popcorn there. Play them in the big hall. It would definitely draw in a lot of people and give the kids something to do at night when there’s nothing else going on except the lobby scene
-They need to go back to Labor Day. Who cares if it’s Ramadan. Imagine this… everyone at ISNA eating suhoor together, praying Fajr. Going to a few sessions in the afternoon. Breaking their iftar together. PRAYING taraweeh together! It would be so amazing. Seriously, there’s no shaytan so no lobby scene, young people would want to attend sessions. So think about it.
-Let’s get interactive. Why not have a huge screen for twitter messages? Or live video webcasts. I know it’s expensive, but how about delayed videos to youtube or something? There’s tons of people who can’t make it to ISNA because of cost or other reasons, why not let them get a taste and some benefit as well.
-How about a free registration if 10 people register from your community for a convert. They are never able to come to ISNAs because the costs are so prohibitive.
-The people renting bazaar booths do shell out a lot of money. How about making a nice booklet that contains a map labeled with each company and maybe some short info about them, their business cards, what they’re selling and their website. Good publicity for them and easier for us to find things or order things later on.
-I heard the matrimonial dinner is a speed dinner type of thing. Where there are 10 guys and 10 girls at a table and the guys keep rotating every 5 minutes. I think this isn’t the best method for matrimonials. I wish ISNA would improve this aspect in the future with different types of events and ways of hooking people up in a halal manner that is conducive for everyone iA.
Allah sent me to this year’s ISNA First, just a month ago I ended up receiving a voucher for a free ticket, so I used it for the ridiculously expensive ticket into DC National airport. Then, space at a hotel opened up through some friends. Somehow I logged on an hour before early registration ended and managed to register. And then when I flew there my flight was delayed for a few hours but then they moved me to a direct flight and I was there in an hour flat! Just seemed destined maybe:)
Alhamdulillah I saw a lot of beautiful things, met many old friends and listened to much wisdom.
and maybe iA…just maybe… I’ll see you next year in Chicago
Check out the pictures here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2192065&id=16113735&l=8bf319da82 All 118 of them!!!
See some of the sessions including Saturday night’s on ISNA’s youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/isnavideos
P.S.S- ISNA Review for 2007.