The celebration dilemma

4th January 1998
The Arafat...Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his wife, Suha and their daugther Zahwa.Ate too much turkey during Christmas and drank too much champagne at the New Year parties? Last year's Christmas and New Year holidays were our second in New York, and, twice in a row, we did not have a white Christmas or snow for the New Year.

On Christmas day, after lunch, accompanied by two friends, Alan Brunken and Vincent Low, I walked for two miles in Central Park on an unusually warm winter day: the sky was clear (by New York standards, that is) there was no wind and there were many New Yorkers and visitors doing the same thing.

There were many couples pushing their babies in a pram, strollers being pulled by dogs on a leash, some dogs scampering around playing "fetch" with their owners, joggers with their walkman and earphones oblivious to the activities in the park and the strolling beautiful ladies in their fur coats wearing Jackie Kennedy-sunglasses some accompanied but a few unescorted.

The three of us enjoyed watching people watching people! After breaking fast (we began on Wednesday, Dec 30) we went out to a friend's house for the New Year's dinner. The next morning Alan and Vincent and I repeated what we did on Christmas day. This time around even more people were out watching people!

In New York, watching people is a big industry and some restaurants are known for the opportunity they provide to watch famous people than for their fare and serf vice. Reservations at the eateries - if you are lucky to get them - are at a premium.

They are normally congested while the noise level is acceptable, sometimes noisy and, when in, you would have wished you had gone somewhere else. I never return to some restaurants but for one, two or three excellent ones, you can't wait to go back to, such is the attraction.

For many non-Christians, Christmas, although it has become a secular and commercial celebration, can be an awkward situation especially for those with young children. It could be a test of their sense of belonging in their adopted country as well as their roots, for American converts to Islam, and other religions especially. For interfaith families, it was a challenge as celebrations overlapped last year in the case of Christmas and Hanukkah, a Jewish celebration of lights.

First, the dilemma of Muslim immigrants. What do you do when the whole of your neighbourhood is beautifully lighted up for Christmas or the Hanukkah and when children ask for their Christmas and Hanukkah presents? Children being children want gifts, otherwise they would feel strange. Most parents for the sake of their children normally relent.

An Arab-Muslim friend, a banker, always gave whatever children wanted because he did not want them to feel left out, but more importantly, he stressed, "they are my kids. They will get whatever they want." He is practical as most Arabs are when they are overseas; something frighteningly too pragmatic even by major basic Islamic sanctions. That is another story.

In New York State there are now thousands of Muslims, and peoples of other faiths are slowly recognizing their presence if not the significance of Islam. I told my Jewish and Christian friends that Islam, Judaism and Christianity share many things. All three are religions of the Book which believe in one God, originated in the Middle East and consider Jerusalem a holy sanctuary. As a Muslim, I believe Jesus (Nabi Isa) as a major prophet and Muslims also have to uphold the Injil or Bible, the untampered Old Testament, the original Alkitab.

My friend, Dr. M. T. Mehdi, an Iraqi-American, the secretary-general of the National Council on Islamic Affairs of New York, and a crusader for Islamic recognition in New York and the United States, said he has had some successes and believes more concessions would be made as the Muslim population increases.

Mehdi told the New York Daily News (Dec 1) that: "I am on a crusade to make the Muslim symbol as common as a nativity scene in Brooklyn. We believe that this is making an open society more. The Empire State Building decoration is surely a 7-foot-by- 5-foot statement that a new ingredient has keen pitched into the melting pot, but it wasn't the symbol's first appearance. It already debuted this month at the Grand Central Terminal and the Long Island Road's Pennsylvania Station waiting room." The crescent and star is a statement of pride for the Arabs.

The crescent signifies the shape of the moon on the first day of the Muslim lunar calendar. The star is what Arabs depended on to find their way through the desert.

Mehdi stressed there is no religious significance to the symbol of the crescent and star. Said he: "This is strictly secular. Islam does not have religious symbols." Mehdi explained that the faithful put their trust in the belief of "Allahhu Akbar - God is the greatest."

With an estimated 800,000 Muslims in the New York region behind him, New Yorkers soon might see the first smooch under the crescent and star.