For Fasting and Football, A Dedicated Game Plan
The New York Times, October 26, 2005
by Samuel Freedman

Dearborn, Mich - At 5 o'clock in the morning on game day, maybe the last game day of his football career, Ali Ahmad walked from the overnight darkness into the gleaming marble heart of the Golden Bakery. He wore his letter jacket from the Dearborn High Pioneers, with an orange chevron on each shoulder for his two years on the varsity and the stitching on the back spelling out his nickname, Flea. From a pocket of his sweats he pulled out a few dollars for a Pepsi and the meat-and-cheese pie called lahma ma jibini.

Since it was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of daylight fasting, Ali would not eat or drink again until the sun set in nearly 14 hours. By then, Dearborn would be lining up against Crestwood High, knowing that a victory would put the Pioneers into the state playoffs and a loss would end the season with a mediocre record of 5-4. Weighing all of 135 pounds, Ali realized that he was not going to play any more football after high school. He would go back to watching it on television like the 6-year-old he had been when he discovered this crashing competition, much to the consternation of his parents, refugees from the more lethal forms of competition practiced in the Lebanese civil war.

If the kickoff on this October Friday was delayed a few minutes, Ali would be able to grab some crackers and a swig of Gatorade from the trainer. Otherwise, he would wait until halftime, having stashed a tuna sub in his locker for breaking the fast. As much as football meant to him, as much as it mattered to win, those things only counted for Ali if he was also staying true to Allah.

''To get through the fast,'' he put it, ''I concentrate on the game.''

The balance Ali struck was nothing unusual here in Dearborn, the center of the largest Arab community in the Americas. About one-third of the students at Ali's high school are Muslim, and the proportion is similar on the football team. Khalil Dabaja at defensive back, Amir Rustom at linebacker, Mohammad Kassab at nose guard, Hassan Cheaib at fullback -- they all have mastered the rhythms of the twin rituals of Islam and the gridiron.

Since Ramadan began in early October, the Muslim players have awakened at 4:30 for the predawn breakfast, shahoor; gone through an entire day of class without sustenance; resisted the temptation of a water break during practice; and started most of their Friday night games before full darkness allows for the evening meal of iftar.

''When you start your day off fasting and you get to football at the end of the day, that's the challenge,'' said Hassan Cheaib, a 17-year-old senior. ''You know you've worked hard. You know you've been faithful. And that makes you much tougher out on the field. You have to have a crazy mentality out on the field, and after fasting all day, you feel like a warrior.''

Khalil Dabaja finds another kind of inspiration, one that puts even the intensity of football in perspective. ''We fast so we can feel for the poor people, to know how they feel,'' said Khalil, 16, a junior. ''I'm going through this hunger and thirst for 12, 13 hours. They're going through it for a lifetime.''

The easy commingling of Ramadan and football season, Middle East and Middle America, has a value beyond the personal. It attests to a fundamental stability in American society, a capacity to absorb difference. Despite the global strains between the United States and much of the Islamic world because of both al Qaeda and Iraq, despite the domestic tensions brought on by the surveillance and detention of Muslims, this country has afforded a public tolerance for immigration and religion far greater than have the nations of Western Europe.

So Dearborn High is a place where the cafeteria serves halal chicken nuggets, girls wear the hijab along with embroidered jeans, the Ramadan food drive gets equal time with the Key Club on morning announcements, and -- to come back to football -- Mohammad Kassab leads his Muslim teammates in al-Fateeha, the prayer that asks God's protection in both spiritual and physical ways, before every game. The divine one notwithstanding, Mohammad also has a favorite cheerleader hold his peanut-butter sandwich on the sideline for iftar.

While the first wave of Arab immigrants reached the Detroit area before World War II, they were predominantly Christians from Syria and Lebanon. The Muslim influx -- Palestinian, Iraqi, Yemenite -- has come largely in the last generation. At Dearborn High, most of the Muslim students are the children of Lebanese who fled the nation's civil war. By now, 20 years along, the parents have gone from being cooks and truck drivers to engineers, doctors and business owners. They have moved their families onto the city's affluent West Side, formerly the stronghold of white ethnics.

When David Mifsud, the Pioneers' coach, played for the team in the early 1980's, he knew one Muslim classmate. The players of that era were Haas, Kreger, Deorio, Szuba, Mason. Returning to Dearborn after college to start teaching at an elementary school, Mr. Mifsud was unprepared for the transformation. After a class aced a reading test, Mr. Mifsud threw a pizza party, only to learn that the Muslim pupils could not eat any because the pepperoni was pork.

These days, when the coach invites his team over for a barbecue, he has halal meat for the burgers.

THIS season asked for a greater sacrifice than the culinary. The last three games of the regular season fell during Ramadan, meaning many of Mr. Mifsud's 25 Muslim players were practicing and playing on empty stomachs.

After some exasperating mistakes -- twice inside the 5-yard line without a touchdown against Allen Park, and falling for the fullback draw play all night against Monroe -- the team risked missing the playoffs after having gone all the way to the semifinals last year.

Still, the coach made sure never to mention the fast, so as to not to call attention to it. The responsibility belonged to the Muslim players themselves, like Ali Ahmad.

''Sometimes at practice one of the guys'll say, 'Let's just break, it's just one day,''' he said. ''And I'll say: 'It's just a few more hours. You only got a couple more to go. It'll be worth it in the end.'''

Postscript: Dearborn defeated Crestwood, 38-6, last Friday, and this Friday has a rematch with Allen Park. Should the Pioneers win, the next round of the playoffs will fall on Eid al-Fitr, the feast at the culmination of Ramadan.


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