First Eid celebration

In the main room of the convention center, I selected the swath of cardboard directly behind the men, as close to the front of the room as I could get. I slipped off my shoes, tucked them into the plastic bag, and stepped over the tape. I settled on a spot that gave me a wide berth of personal space.

People entered in a steady stream as I waited. They greeted one another with kisses and took photos together on their phones. I scooted this way and that to accommodate new arrivals. Soon I had nowhere else to go as the women and children crowded in around me. I came face-to-face with a chubby baby in a hijab. I had only ever seen kids at mosques wearing western-style clothes, and here was a little girl still wobbly on her feet in a special tiny head scarf. I have no idea why dressing tots in grownup clothes has such universal appeal, but my heart melted at the sight of her.

The sermon began. It was about how Allah brings individuals together, how humanity is drawing closer. As if to demonstrate the point, waves of people kept walking through the doors. At some point, I raised my head high enough to see past my nearest neighbors and found that the room was nearly full. The women’s side was vibrant with color and style. It included everything from African queens in elaborately folded fabric hats to Persian princesses in sky-high heels; from loose robes to form-fitting designer suits. A covered head was the only common denominator in terms of appearance—and even in this the crowd sported a vast range of styles

The imam was saying that as we gather today, those of us in this room with others in this country and around the world, we must feel our connection also with everyone who suffers. As he implored us to feel others’ need as our own, audience members were passing big plastic boxes for collecting zakat. By the time one reached me, it had a mound of bills. I stuffed in a few more dollars before handing it on.

Then it was time for prayer. It took a few moments for us to properly situate ourselves so that our shoulders and arms were in contact. A thousand little whispers and adjustments blended into a sizable drone. When agreement was reached, we began. It was the same series of rakahs I had grown accustomed to performing at mosques, only here I was doing them in a crowd much larger than anything I had ever anticipated. It was like I had been learning dance steps in a small classroom for months, and now I was performing them in public as part of a giant flash mob. As a single body, we bowed and kneeled and pressed our foreheads to the ground.

The sheer scale of our synchronized movements made me think of the pictures I had seen of the Hajj. They show thousands and thousands of pilgrims wearing the simple garments that erase socioeconomic distinctions. The people walk in circles around the Kaaba, that small structure in Mecca that symbolizes the enormity of an idea: with one God, we are one. Every prayer in Islam is a return to this notion, just as Eid al-Adha is a return to the well from which its shared history flows.

Convention center

Being alone and a little tentative about joining the public Eid celebration, I decided I would use the convention center’s official parking garage. I followed the signs to the rear of the building where I stopped at the little parking booth. A single cop stood nearby but he seemed unconcerned with the likes of me. At the very least, I had expected to confront a bomb sniffing dog. I was prepared for a snout to run the length of my car’s undercarriage, maybe be asked to pop open the trunk. I paid and they waved me in nonchalantly.

I snaked my way through the cavernous underground and found an available space near the elevators. It was still a little on the early side; only a smattering of cars were here. I turned off the engine and pulled the scarf from my bag. I had swapped my usual one, which was plain white, for a fancier leopard print. In place of the little safety pin I normally used as a fastener, I had a small rhinestone brooch. These tiny things made me feel all dressed up.

A sedan full of people arrived and parked nearby. I watched as members of a family got out, at least three generations worth, from little to grown to frail. The women wore saris with dots of sparkle. I wondered if the people at this event would favor a particular nationality. Technically, all were welcome—but in reality how would that play out? Every faith gave lip service to unity but then most of its members seemed to favor contact with people just like themselves. The women of the family I was watching adjusted the layers of their saris as the men stood patiently. Together they walked to the bank of elevators.

As I made my way to the main floor, I wondered if today’s crowd would be drawn mostly from the well-off suburban Muslims who belonged to congregations north of downtown. I attended Jummah at two mosques with congregants fitting this description. If Dallas was experiencing a mini-boom in mosque construction, here were excellent examples. Both were big, modern structures that had recently been built. For Friday services, their expansive parking lots were filled with nice cars. Inside, the service was shoulder-to-shoulder. The women’s areas were almost identical: a big room above the main sanctuary like a balcony but with a wall of clear glass to allow peeking below. From a vantage point on the floor, the view was of the sanctuary’s ceiling and, where there were windows to the outside, the tops of trees and power lines and sky. It felt like the Muslim equivalent of visiting a mega-church: big and anonymous, at least from the perspective of a newcomer. No one paid much attention to me. I had grown so accustomed to sticking out, that it was a nice change to blend in and go about my business as if I belonged. I worshipped and left, uttering no more than a few pleasantries to random strangers.

At the convention center, the elevator doors opened onto a concourse, a big area next to the exhibition space. Groups were happily chatting; giddy kids bounced around. It seemed as if everyone was holding a piece of candy of the “fun size” variety so prevalent around Halloween. Some adults carried bags of the stuff, passing it out to young and old alike.

I stopped at a table being manned by several women in hijab. They welcomed me, explained that the front half of the center was for men while the back half was for women, and handed me a plastic bag for my shoes. Beyond them, the doors were open to the room where the event was taking place. It was huge, large enough to accommodate four basketball courts perhaps, the kind of space that might normally have booths set up in aisles, with hundreds of visitors wandering up and down, collecting brochures of information. Today, it was utterly transformed. Big panels of Arabic lettering occupied one end, stretching from wall to wall. The concrete floor was checkered with enormous squares of pristine cardboard, each one cordoned off with tape to prevent shoe-clad trespassing. Slices of exposed concrete created aisles for walking. If the organizers of this event were expecting enough people to fill the cardboard, they were planning for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of worshippers. All around, people were seated in little groups like picnickers at a park. Compared to the available real estate, their numbers seemed paltry. I doubted the turnout would be as big as hoped.