New Muslim Cool co-producers Kauthar Umar and Hana Siddiqi wrote in to tell us about “Generation Change,” a U.S. State Department event held last week in Washington, D.C. toasting some of the best and most innovative American Muslim leaders under the age of 30.
With much excitement and anticipation we arrived in Washington, D.C. last week as special guests and keynote speakers for an event that gathered the best and the brightest movers and shakers from the American Muslim community.
As the two co-producers of New Muslim Cool we were happy to be representing the film once again. New Muslim Cool has taken quite a journey since its release in 2009: From opening POV’s 2009 season on PBS and being viewed in homes across the nation, to its film festival tour and screenings around the world, including Qatar, Russia, Italy, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, South Africa, Turkey, Bangladesh, Great Britain, and recently to Bahrain.
The ability to share our experience at the Department of State was a genuine honor.
U.S. Department of State’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith invited us to speak on Tuesday, September 7, to 75 young American Muslim change makers for “Generation Change,” an event held prior to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Iftar dinner to which we were also invited guests.
The Secretary hosted the State Department’s annual Ramadan Iftar to commemorate the breaking of the day’s fast.
“The holy month of Ramadan is a time when Muslims fast from sun up to sundown, and it is a period of deep reflection and prayer but also a time to do more than usual for your community,” wrote Pandith.
This year’s Iftar featured many guests chosen because they represented some of the best and most innovative American Muslim leaders under the age of 30. The Iftar was consistent with Secretary Clinton’s commitment to engaging the “next generation” at the grassroots level.
When we arrived at the State Department early that afternoon, hand selected guests – young lawmakers, entrepreneurs, community organizers, religious leaders and artists – from around the U.S. where slowly filling the small waiting area. Once we passed through State Department security, got our name and security badges, we where escorted to the Loy Henderson Auditorium and made our selves comfortable at the u-shaped conference table.
Farah Pandith gave each of us a warm welcome as she made her way around the table shaking our hands and recognizing most of us by name — pretty impressive! When she approached us and said, “You should be sitting at the head of the room at our speakers’ table. You are our special guests.” We looked at each other surprised and honored and relocated to the raised panelist table at the head of the room where we peered out over a crowd filled with the best and the brightest of our generation.
As keynote speakers we sat alongside Herro Mustafa [from the documentary film, American Herro (watch trailer)], Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa (creator of The 99 comics), and Ahmed Ahmed (comedian). The video for the inspirational talks given by all the keynote speakers is available to watch here: http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1857622883?bctid=605254440001. (Our talk starts at about 24:30 minutes.)
Farah Pandith’s supportive words made the crowd feel great about the work they where doing and Herro Mustafa’s talk was truly inspirational. Both Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa and Ahmed Ahmed encouraged the group to stay motivated and keep reaching for their goals despite set backs and managed to keep the energy very light and comedic!
We were the last to address the crowd and soon after, the crowd was split into three break out session groups to discuss various topics such as “Identity Crisis,” “Feeling Helpless When it Comes to Foreign Policy and International Politics,” and “Lack of Education About Islam.”
The result of these sessions was one and the same. These are complex questions and issues and we aren’t going to even begin to solve them in 20 minutes, but it’s nice to get the ball rolling on thinking about how we all — as a group of dynamic individuals working on our own projects — can start connecting more with one another to offer our individual expertise to one another.
In the hall we got to mingle with the group once again and saw many new faces from across the country — each with an amazing story to tell. We also had a few reunions with people who attended college or had worked with us in the past. We were soon escorted to the elevators and to the designated eighth floor where we entered an amazing foyer and made our way out to a huge balcony where we mingled with politicians, ambassadors from various countries and religious leaders.
As we conversed with Special Representative Farah Pandith, we heard the sound of the Adhaan, the Islamic call to prayer marking the end of the day’s fast and the time for the “Maghrib” sundown prayer. All conversations came to a halt and there was silence aside from the melodic Arabic and people walking towards the side room to pray.
It was amazing to hear this sound in this setting. This sound is so familiar and recognizable to Muslims and those in predominately Muslim countries, where the call for prayer is announced on loudspeakers five times a day. We’ve heard the Azhaan in many non-Islamic settings. We’ve seen Muslims pray in jamaat (large groups) at big parks throught the United States, but hearing the Azhaan and seeing the Muslim prayer on the eighth floor of the U.S. State Department building gave us a sense of comfort, ease and pride as American Muslims.
After the call for prayer, butlered hors d’oeurves, fruit drinks, dates and nuts were distributed to break the fast. We opted for the ice water, chatted with other guests and made our way into the grand Benjamin Franklin room. We were surprised to discover that we were being seated at the front table where Hillary Clinton would also be dining after her address. We were seated with ambassadors, lawyers, imams and politicians, (Hana was next to the Ambassador of Afghanistan and across from the Ambassador of Djibouti and Hillary Clinton while Kauthar dined next to the Ambassador of Malaysia and Imam Majid of Virginia Adams Center Mosque).
The table was full of amazing people doing amazing things. Special Representative Farah Pandith introduced Hillary Clinton and she gave her speech.
She brought up many of the people in the room by name, and others by the impressive work they were doing at home and abroad. She gave a special shout out to all of the young people present for the pre-Iftar Generation Change event, whom she described as “innovative… committed… reaching beyond traditional boundaries and creating new avenues of dialogue…” In regards to the work we are all doing she said: “This kind of engagement, in my view, is really a form of diplomacy, and so all of you are unofficial ambassadors on behalf of our country, our values, and our own communities as well as yours. Our embassies now are sponsoring more events like ‘Generation Change’ in order to listen to young people and to help connect up young people across the globe, to connect them with other change-makers.”
Beyond this, Clinton condemned the recent news reports of a pastor threatening to burn the Qur’an. She only briefly mentioned Palestine in referring to peace talks saying that “peace needs champions on every street corner and around every kitchen table.” Before sitting she made her way around the very long table greeting each person and allowing us to introduce ourselves. She then sat and began to converse and laugh along with Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, to her right, and Ahmed Ahmed across from her.
Farah Pandith, (seated to the right of Hana) gave us a heads-up about the food — the fact that it was going to be amazing — and she was more than right. Apart from the impressive taste was the beautiful display of it all: tres magnifique! For iftar they served spanikopita (puff pastry filled with brie and fig preserves); dolma (grape leaves filled with halal chicken, rice, and herbs); yogurt sauce or raita; tapenade; red and yellow beet salad with rasberry-white balsamic vinaigrette and whipped goat cheese. For dinner they served sea bass with Mediterranean herbs, pistachio-crusted medallions of halal lamb tenderloin and saffron rice with dried currants. Last but surely not least, for dessert they served coconut meringue cake with passion fruit coulis and salted caramels. All this went down with a delicious pomegranate acai tea.
Throughout the evening, young people approached us praising New Muslim Cool and thanking us for sharing Hamza’s story. Some asked to take photographs with us and some inquired if there would be a sequel to New Muslim Cool. Others wanted to know what we were currently working on.
Kauthar is editing the New Muslim Cool companion book. The Isl-am-erica anthology examines the relationship between Muslims and American popular culture, discussing hip hop, identity, and culture in the American Muslim context. Other than working on her new film that is currently in production, Hana is preparing to screen New Muslim Cool in Angola as part of the American Documentary Showcase, a program offered by the U.S. Department of State to U.S. embassies around the world. Many asked for updates on Hamza and his family and praised POV and director/producer Jennifer Maytorena Taylor for telling the story of so many young American Muslim people, living and coping with being Muslim in America after 9/11.
It was only five years ago that we were attending conferences and introducing people to our film project eager to network with guest speakers who were selected to address the crowd with their knowledge and expertise. Due to public television’s ability to reach the masses; five years and one award winning internationally acclaimed film later, we are keynote speakers, sharing about our experience and bringing supportive inspirational words to a group of young people, on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. That night, New Muslim Cool was recognized as a film that speaks to and is an example of the American Islam that is civically engaged, eager to share experiences and work together for a better America while still maintaining a proud identity.
We stood proud that night, to be a part of helping to shape that America for the next generation.
— Kauthar Umar and Hana Siddiqi
Note: All images courtesy of Hana Saddiqi, except where noted.