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The Suhoor Fest Journals

The Suhoor Fest Journals

In 2018, the first pop-up Suhoor Festival was launched with around ten vendors in a parking lot that fit twelve cars. After a two year pandemic hiatus, the festival returned this year in an 85,000 sq ft parking lot with over 55,000 attendees on opening weekend. Among them was Zainab Rights, an author selling faith-based books. Her journals reveal an insider look at the festival and the personal journey of the man who founded it.

The Suhoor Fest Journals

In 2018, the first pop-up Suhoor Festival was launched with around ten vendors in a parking lot that fit twelve cars. After a two year pandemic hiatus, the festival returned this year in an 85,000 sq ft parking lot with over 55,000 attendees on opening weekend. Among them was Zainab Rights, an author selling faith-based books. Her journals reveal an inside look at the festival and the personal journey of the man who founded it.

Written by Zainab Rights, for TMJ News Firstperson

July 27, 2022

Chapter One

I first met Hassan at the Fairlane parking lot on April 7th where the Ramadhan Suhoor Fest was taking place. Tents were being pitched up as vendors and their workers hauled merchandise into their stalls. I was a last minute addition as an author on the festival’s vendor list. I had heard from a colleague about how the festival was donating all its proceeds to charity and thought it was the perfect way to get to know a community that was in many ways foreign to me. 

Despite the chaos, Hassan was accommodating, humble and kind as he showed me the area that would become my space. He beamed when I told him about my faith-based books. He said anything that would help further Islam was what the festival was all about. His God-Centric approach from the very beginning stood out to me, especially when I had seen how most festivals were more interested in culture over religion and turning a profit. 

Being there with a book stall for charity gave me an inside-look at how the Suhoor Festival was run. As events unfolded over the course of the month, from the immense success of the festival to the substantial backlash from a community I knew very little of, my interest in this story piqued. Little did anyone know that I would seek to explore this experience with an editorial eye.

Many knew of Hassan Chami as the man who led the Ramadan Suhoor Fest to great success. It drew over fifty-five thousand attendees on opening weekend, held raffles that sent longing pilgrims to Hajj and Ziyarah, features in prominent shows like Good Morning America and raised over 200k in charity. I, however, was more interested in the man behind the festival and how his personal journey transformed the fate of the festival itself.

Chapter Two
A God-Centric Worldview

Exploring this story took many twists and turns. At first, this was going to be a straightforward write-up about the event itself; the day when I attended as a reporter with ink, paper and a camera strung around my neck. But after hopping into trucks and being invited into stalls to talk to vendors and shoppers all night, I realized a bigger story was at play. I decided to interview Hassan and ask him questions about his life, his upbringing, and his worldview. I could tell that this was all very foreign to him; he wasn’t used to talking about himself. But as we spoke at great length, I could finally make the correlations between his life’s experiences and the spiritual transformation of the Suhoor Fest.

Hassan revealed how he grew up in a devout family where God was central and everything revolved around Islam. While he grew up as an ordinary teen who hung out with friends, his God-centric household encouraged him to be religious, fulfill his obligations, pray and attend lectures at the mosque.

However, it was his experience in college that would set the stage for his growing interest in Islam. It was here that he observed the lifestyles that were out there and how one could easily stray, helping him hold on to his faith harder and use that time in solitude to study the religion. For four years, he would spend the time during long commutes from college to his home visiting family on weekends listening to lectures. “Having that time to myself where I could benefit from gaining knowledge over listening to music helped me take advantage of that free time to elevate my spirituality,” he said.

In 2018, the first pop-up Ramadan Suhoor Fest took place with about ten vendors. Hassan would stand on top of trash cans and admire the crowds who had turned out in support of the event. By the same time next year,  the festival’s attendance at Hype grew to five times what it was. Here, he stood atop a ladder unable to believe his eyes at the sheer number of people who had found a sense of community at the festival.  

But between the two festivals, a life-changing encounter took place that amplified Hassan’s God-centric intentions for his community.

Chapter Three
The Woman at the Kaaba

A few months after the pop-up festival, Hassan Chami made his pilgrimage to Hajj with his mother in 2018. He still gets teary eyed recounting this time, calling it the best experience of his life. “I truly felt like nothing in this world mattered,” he said. “I was completely disassociated with anything from the dunya (world) other than the people I went to Hajj with and what I was doing there.”

Hassan describes the journey as a beautiful struggle that was meant to cleanse one’s sins. The feelings that came from this time were so intense that he still remembers what it felt like to do the Tawaaf around the Kaaba in the Holy City of Mecca. As a younger member of the Hajj group, he was tasked with holding the two lines together in the back, putting the arms of the elders on his shoulders as he walked on. “My feet hurt so much that I knew if I didn’t make it to heaven, God would take these two feet and put them in heaven.” And while the holistic experience was life changing, it is the story of the African woman he saw praying emotionally in front of the Kaaba that has stayed with him since.

“She had her hands up and was crying and making dua, and she was so shocked that she had made it to the Kaaba,” he said. “This was huge to me because her life experience was so different from mine.” Hassan describes reflecting for a while on the idea of not having much as opposed to having much more than you need from a first world country like the United States. “The more luxury you have the bigger of a test it is and the harder it is to gain spirituality,” he said. 

Hassan thinks of the supplicating woman and her connection to the Kaaba even today, sparking everyday conversations with his wife before purchasing something nice for their home. “Is it too much, do we really need it, is it excessive?” he asks. “How is it going to affect me spiritually, these are questions I now ask myself all because of the experience I had watching that lady in front of the Kaaba.”

Chapter Four
Arriving at the Festival

After the pandemic swept through the nation and put a stop to events and gatherings, Hassan focused on his growing family and work. When things began reopening, the community and vendors expressed interest in seeing the return of the festival in Dearborn, a city that is home to 40,000 Arab-Americans, many of whom are Muslim. The bar was set high right from the start, and everything happened quickly. And while the motto remained “Community, Unity, Charity” the focal point was always on the charity aspect. 

Not only did the one dollar cover charge sales and donations raise $218,000 in charity, other efforts were made to award five high school and five college students scholarships as well as campaigns for struggling community members. 

The festival dedicated April 23rd as the #FightLikeFarah campaign for Farah Khalil, a young girl battling lymphoma and a close friend of Ali Bazzi, owner of AHB Trends and my stall neighbor. I observed how jars were placed on every vendor table raising money for Farah’s medical expenses. Many didn’t know Farah personally, including Hassan himself, but they believed showing up for community members going through difficulties was crucial to the spirit of the festival.  On Friday, July 22, 2022, Farah Khalil passed away at 25-years-old. 

Wading through stalls and heavy crowds on the night of April 23rd, I watched as the entrance lines looped around parking lots that were already jam-packed with cars. People had to walk miles in order to reach the festival grounds and parking volunteers were put in position to direct the influx of traffic. Police patrol cars zoomed around and stood close by in case any security concerns were to arise. I wondered if the already large space could contain any more people or how much longer the wait-times for food would be. It seemed, however, that those waiting in line didn’t mind as much chatting away with friends and family.  

Children bounced balls at the makeshift basketball court, families took photos in front of the giant Holy Qur’an exhibit and patrons admired the lights hanging above them as they entered. While most of those who came were visibly Muslim, there were diverse crowds of non-Muslim attendees as well who were curious about the event. People came from states like Minnesota and Missouri and even from across the Canadian border. The diversity was Hassan’s favorite part of the festival to witness. “We at Dearborn take this for granted,” Hassan said. “A lot of people don’t have this. Children wrote thank you letters to us for hosting the Festival.” 

Each night around midnight time, the festival fell silent for ten to fifteen minutes as the Qari began reciting words from the Holy Qur’an. As part of the vendor contracts, Hassan ensured no type of selling or activity took place during the recitation to give this time the respect it deserved. Breaching this would mean contractual violation which could result in vendor expulsion. 

Grand-fathered vendors like Printcitee and AHB Trends have watched the festival grow since its infancy in 2019. For many like Fry Guys, the festival gives them an opportunity to work with their families amidst a God-centric backdrop where they can listen to speeches, nasheeds and Qur’an recitation. For Islamic vendors like Buraq Publications and Muslim authors like Mariam Charara, the festival is one of the very few events that gives opportunity to showcase important literature to a wider audience. 

Booths such as Falasteen Fits jumpstarted their charitable pop-up shop only four weeks prior to the Suhoor Festival this year and had long line-ups for Palestinian themed keychains, lanyards, hoodies and t-shirts, all of which highlighted the injustices occurring in Palestine. Karim Kadouh of the Custard Co. recounted how one afternoon the wind destroyed the festival, but within hours the vendor community had turned out to help one another put everything back into place before nightfall.

The festival’s stage gave space for performances by local poets like Hassan Salamey and activist speakers like Tarek Bazzi shed light on Quds Day and its modern-day significance. The Suhoor Fest was advertised to the community as a vibrant family event to grab snacks late in the night, but it meant a lot more to the ones who spent their Ramadan evenings in freezing temperatures, behind rectangular tables and under rainy skies.

Chapter Five
At the Meetings

A couple vendor meetings took place throughout the month, two of them which I could attend. The purpose of the meetings was to align organizers and vendors on set-up, clean-up, parking and traffic control. It was here that I got to meet everyone at a deeper level, once at the Dearborn Civic Center and the other at the Fairlane Parking Lot where Hasan led the meeting standing on top of a picnic table. The organizers stood around him, donning their Ramadan Suhoor Fest t-shirts and jotting things down on their clipboards. Hassan’s wife, Lamees, was the follow-up point of contact for vendors. She was a formidable woman with a bright smile and an energy that radiated calmness. It was not difficult to see that Hassan and the festival at large derived great strength from her.

During the meeting, Hassan was brief and sharp, addressing points from parking to community issues. He chided the youth for not stepping in when elder vendors had to clean up their areas, reminding them that they needed to pitch in and help. When I asked him why he did this, he responded “in Islam, we respect our elders, so we will help them clean their areas.”

The meetings revealed the back-end decisions that shaped the spiritual outlook of the festival. Islamic scholars were being consulted to determine how best to increase spirituality at the festival and to ensure decisions were in line with Islamic principles. 

In one meeting, Hassan spoke about Hulu expressing interest in covering the festival but after being unable to meet demands in writing to protect the sanctity of the festival due to legal issues, the team decided to forego this opportunity. When I later enquired about this, he said the the decision wasn’t a difficult one to make. “We didn’t need 15 minutes of fame if it came at the expense of the sacredness of the festival. When the intention is focused on God, no decision is really hard to walk away from,” he said.

Chapter Six
Humility after Success

The most heartwarming of observations was perhaps the one of Hassan’s father, Tarek, who walked alongside of him on and off stage. It was evident that his father, whom the community called on as Uncle Terry of the Terry Melt, was proud of his son. I didn’t, however, know exactly what he was proud of. I assumed, much like everyone else, it was about the overwhelming success his son had achieved through the festival’s turnout. This however, could not be further from the truth.

In the later interview I had with Hassan, he spoke of how as the only son among four children, he always felt a sense of responsibility toward his family. His father, according to Hassan, was an honorable man with a great reputation within the community. “Having a dad with good character is what I always looked up to,” he said.

He describes his father as a rather quiet man who is not one to show too much affection, but watching him walk with his head held high and chest up at the festival meant a great deal to Hassan. Both Hassan and his mother exchanged words about seeing this for the very first time in their lives. “Financial success never affected us,” Hassan said. “Whether we have or don’t have money, our family stays the same. But for my father, when he saw his son and daughter-in-law doing something for the sake of Islam, this meant everything to him.”

Even when criticism for the festival mounted, mainly from community members who hadn’t experienced the festival for themselves, Hassan maintained a positive outlook despite long nights spent picking up potatoes and corn from festival grounds and fatherhood duties awaiting him early in the morning.

But he gives this credit to his family foundations that have shaped his intentions for God-centric causes like the Suhoor Festival. “When something is done for Islam, it is from God and it is for God,” he said. “If your ego gets involved in something you’re doing for God, you’ve failed in the ultimate test in life.”

Chapter Seven
Infusing More Islam

As crowds lined up at the free raffle stations to enter their names into the drawings for free Umrah and Ziyarah trips, the excitement for these trips could be sensed every time Hassan announced it into the microphone. On the last day, attendees filled the space close to the stage, pacing nervously as they peered at their tickets in hopes that their names would be called up. To be invited as a guest to either was a dream many Muslim’s have but cannot necessarily afford, and to be able to gift these life changing trips to attendees through the support of generous donors was important for Hassan.

A year before the pop-up Suhoor festival and his 2018 Hajj trip, Hassan went for Ziyarah which made a significant impact on his life. It was here that Hassan was inspired by the lives of the Ahlulbayt and the gems that they had left behind as a guiding light, such as their teachings, duas and stories. “When it comes to the death anniversaries and birthdays of the Ahlulbayt and Ashura, it is a constant reset for us,” he said. “It is more than just Ramadhan, these constant resets allow us to ground ourselves on how to live our lives from the lessons they have left behind.”

Hassan calls Muharram a time for great reflection. He draws on how different Muharram and Ramadhan are spiritually. “Muharram is emotional, but being emotional helps guide that spirituality,” he said. “The same way when people are in need and they prostrate and are emotional about it, it is such a genuine act because of the emotion behind it.”

God-centrism has been integral to Hassan’s life, and through his own journey a spiritual transformation is seen in the effects of the Suhoor Fest. And while this year’s festival is hailed as a success, Hassan’s aspirations are even loftier.

“My goal is to infuse more Islam in everything I do,” he said. “For the festival, I’d like to have more talks by scholars, Q and A booths, scholars walking around and speaking to the children. We have already seen that the festival is a platform that brings in the youth so now we need to go to them, and give them more Islam.”

Written by: Zainab Rights | Copy Editor: Fatima Alhajri | Lead Digital Producer: Fatima El-Zein | Photography: TMJ News Network & Ramadhan Suhoor Festival | Artwork + Graphics: Mariam Al-Sayed

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