By Zainab Arain
I stepped out of the airport and was confronted by the sight of eight boisterous girls stuffed into a minivan with their luggage and junk food. I was to be the ninth. I squeezed into a space on the floor, shouted my salams over the clamor, and we took off into the night.
Thus began my first day at the ICNA-MAS Convention 2012. The last conference I had attended took place in ‘07; it seemed like forever ago. I couldn’t recall much other than long food lines and even longer lines for wudu.
We arrived at the Marriot Hotel in Hartford, CT at the indecent hour of 4:30 AM. After unloading our belongings, the nine of us crashed in a single room. Some sprawled over the beds; others claimed floor space and knocked out.
Friday morning was busy with final set up and last minute shopping. We needed to buy all sorts of things, including stage decorations for the Youth Conference and snacks and posters for the “Sisters Only” sessions of the convention. A particular brother’s credit card became gold at this time.
The drive into Hartford was beautiful. Downtown was a bit dead, but what’s not to like about a car ride with friends? The weather, the people, the context—everything came together to make it memorable. I was enjoying myself immensely, and the convention had yet to officially begin.
Friday night we attended the first of several secret sessions at the conference. Sh. Abdul Nasir Jangda addressed some of the organizational issues we faced and gave practical advice on how to overcome the challenges we often confront when working for the deen.
By this time, about eight girls had joined our growing family, and we divided into three rooms for the night. We slept less than two hours; but honestly, how can sleep compare to late night conversations and creating lasting bonds of sisterhood?
Saturday morning dawned too bright and too early. There is a certain high you experience when you are short on sleep, have more caffeine than is healthy in your system, have a terribly long list of things to do, are surrounded by friends in a similar situation, and are at an Islamic conference. If you have not yet had the joy of the experience, you are seriously missing out.
The first sessions started immediately after Dhuhr prayer. I’m positive the program organizers connived to make all the sessions equally appealing so as to cause distress to the attendees. I could not decide which session to attend. Eventually I chose the one most people were heading towards, Session 1 of Window to Islam, which was about Prophets Musa, Isa and Muhammad, peace be upon them. The room was packed and overflowing. People were spread out over the floor and spilled out into the hallway. I loved it.
The next session I wanted to attend overlapped with the Window to Islam lecture, and so the second it finished, I almost ran to listen to Session 1 of the Youth Conference. But on the way out, I bumped into a friend I’d seen years ago on a different continent. Not only was I building new relationships, the convention was providing me with the chance to refresh old ones.
Later in the day, ICNA Sisters’ Wing held a leadership dinner and invited women from all branches of ICNA to attend and build connections with one another. We got to interact with women who were accomplishing great things in their respective fields, whether it was counseling, disaster relief or social justice. We also got the chance to meet Ibtihaj Muhammad, a hijabi Muslim fencer, who will be representing the US in the 2012 Olympics. I was in awe of the talent I was surrounded by.
We ended the program for the day in the final Main Hall session listening to Imam Suhaib Webb, Imam Omar Suleiman, Sh. Abdul Nasir Jangda and Br. Nouman Ali Khan. I was floored by the speeches; they were simply amazing. In particular, Imam Omar Suleiman’s story about his mother as his role model was deeply touching.
After the end of the session, sometime after midnight, we came to the conclusion that we were all quite ravenous. To remedy this unfortunate state of affairs, we decided to go out on a night crawl of Hartford in search for food. “We” consisted of about fifteen girls. At this point we were severely sleep deprived and exhausted enough to drop down anywhere, but that didn’t stop us from returning to the Marriot lobby with the epitome of artery clogging food – Taco Bell and McDonald’s – and then proceeding to have a hot sauce eating competition. Yes.
Needless to say, we only caught a few hours of sleep that night. But we woke early to ensure we would make it to the early morning Youth Conference intensive session, Saved by the Deed. This session was personally the most beneficial of all sessions at the conference. May Allah reward the speakers for addressing important issues in a relevant and easily digestible way. “Everybody say Ameen.” Ameen!
For most of Sunday, we flitted between listening to the Youth Conference sessions and taking care of other business. In between, I got my hands on a DSLR and took great joy in creeping around snapping photos of people. At 5 PM, we headed to the sisters-only entertainment session. We had been expecting a maximum of fifty people and had prepared food and other things accordingly, but things have a tendency to not go as expected. We had around two hundred women file into the room to be entertained. Alhamdulillah, the women leading the session did an excellent job at keeping everything under control and the audience left satisfied.
Immediately following that session, Young Muslims Sisters’ held a gathering with current YMS members and former alumnae in which introductions were made and the alumnae gave valuable advice and related their experiences. I discovered a precious resource that I had previously been unaware of. These were people who had been through similar situations as myself and could dispense practical suggestions.
After one more sisters-only lecture, we returned to the Main Hall for the family entertainment session; the session was great, but we had more fun joking among ourselves than actually listening to anything happening up on stage.
Though I was exhausted to the point where lethargy had settled deep within my bones, I could not bear going to sleep and missing out on the last few hours I would have with my sisters at the convention. My flight back to Los Angeles was in a few hours and I wanted to squeeze as many memories out of those hours as I could.
So naturally we decided it would be a brilliant idea to go to the Marriot Pool Room after hours. Nothing feels as amazing as a Jacuzzi when you are tired and sore. We had a great time relaxing together, and left the pool despondent as we made our way to our separate rooms. I spent the last hour of my time in Hartford lounging in a hotel room with a dozen girls. It was the perfect end to an unforgettable weekend.
And however cliché that may sound, that is exactly what it was. Unforgettable. So much knowledge crammed over three days. So many memories crammed into three days. So many strong bonds of friendship formed over three days.
When you attend an Islamic conference, you don’t only go for the knowledge. It’s often also for the social experience—that incredible feeling of being surrounded by thousands of Muslims. The ICNA-MAS convention gives you that in spades.
One of my friends said “You know you have been to an ICNA convention when you go home and you see a bunch of friend requests on Facebook.”
Oh, hello there notifications.
Zainab Arain is a communication studies student at University of California, Los Angeles. She represented Young Muslims Southern California at the ICNA-MAS Convention 2012 at Hartford, CT.
Photographs by Zainab Arain.