For religion and football, a new kind of fast

The intersection between hard-hitting American football and reverential fasting can be found during fall Friday nights on Ford Road in Dearborn, Michigan.

The majority of football players at Fordson High School did not eat from dawn to dusk. Faith and patriotism, hunger and thirst, stood at football’s equivalent of the half court line for the majority of Fordson HS football players during the final ten days of Ramadan.

In “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football,” a documentary released last year, offers a glimpse into the lives of the predominately Arab-American community, however, these issues fall into the shadows. For these students, their main thought at the ball’s snap is conquering the crosstown rival player immediately on the other side of ball. These are the glory days, or rather, nights.

The film follows several high school football players on Dearborn’s east side as they do not eat or drink from dawn to dusk during the final ten days of Ramadan.

Director Rashid Ghazi did not portray the confluence of fasting and physical labor nor its congruence with the Sept. 11 attacks as the story’s centerfold. The story of the football game, a high school student’s senior year crosstown rival football game, is what pulls the viewer in.

“I thought we were going to get a film that was more depressive than what we ended up getting,” Ghazi said. “I thought we were going to get a film of the community that felt really sorry for themselves and down on their nation and down on their luck,” he said. “But what I found,” he said, “was a community that was extremely resilient and almost defiant to the point where it’s a ‘no excuses’ kind of place.” As a whole, they had a “you don’t have to feel sorry for us’” kind of mentality, he said.

Many of the football players are third or fourth generation Arabic descent,” Ghazi said. “A lot of things that they are passionate about are what your “typical American guy” is passionate about,” he said. What is not typical about these men is the color of their skin and their religion, Ghazi said.

Muslims were initially Ghazi’s secondary target audience, he said. Due to distribution issues, Ghazi said he has been putting more attention on the Muslim audience as a way to drive awareness of the film.

“My goal is to reach American males who may not necessarily be open to Islam, may have had negative images of Islam, may have bigotry against Islam,” he said.

The “American Dream” narrative was never intentional, Ghazi said. “It just came out of the voices of these people,” he said, “and to me, it was very inspiring.”

To Ghazi, this narrative made it apparent that Dearborn’s current immigrants have the same dream as America’s past settlers. “If you look at the first people who came to this country,” he said, “they came because of religious persecution. They came for more opportunity.”

When Henry Ford built the high school in 1922, nearly the entire school population was forged from children of European immigrants whose parents were the original laborers cranking steel and Model T’s out of Ford’s first factories. Since then the demographic has shifted and Arab-Americans make up the large majority of the student populace. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Arab Americans now make up 30 percent of Dearborn’s population, giving the city the densest Arab American population in the country. While the data for Dearborn’s 2010 Arab American population is not yet available, 2010 census data revealed that of the 18 cities bordering Detroit–which saw a 25 percent population drop from 2000 to 2010–Dearborn was the only city with a stable population during those same years.

“If you go out to Dearborn, it is amazing,” Ghazi said. “As you are driving down the street, you see Arab signs, and churches– Christian churches with Arabic signs.”

“It is a different culture there,” he said.

“I think [Muslims’] definition of the American Dream is whatever immigrants’ is … and that has been freedom,” he said. “It has been opportunity. It has been education.”

Ghazi said he believes that many Muslim’s “American Dream” is to own their business.

“When you look at the revitalization of Dearborn and you go down Michigan Avenue, the entire street is the American Dream for all the people because they all own their own businesses as well.”

Ghazi said it took six years for the film to come to fruition. According to Ghazi, after a hesitant Dearborn Board of Education agreed to allow him to film the movie, he signed a contract that forbade him from discussing any pending lawsuits surrounding the school.

As concepts with faithful followers, the integration of Ramadan with football season is the perfect storm for a compelling sports narrative. Ramadan, however, did not play a major role in the film.

“This was intentional,” Ghazi said. “They didn’t want to make a big deal about Ramadan because they thought it was something that you just do, not something that should be talked about that much,” he said.

According to Baquer Sayed, the team’s wide receiver, “Ramadan gives us a chance to step back and think about the poor and what they are going through.”

Since the documentary was filmed in 2009, Coach Fouad Zaban has moved the team’s practices to the middle of the night, which last from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. during weeks the religious and athletic calendars intersect, according to the New York Times.

Several critics inveighed against the flashes of flag-waving and theatrical music jammed at the end of the film.

This dramatization, however, was necessary in certain respects, Ghazi said.

“If you have got a pickup truck, and you have a Confederate flag and a tattoo … all of a sudden you are American,” he said. Symbols are important to many cultures.

For the film’s target audience already have a bias against Muslims and Islam, he said. “Some people may say it is ‘too much I love America’” with the culminated image of football, the American Dream, and “some flag waving,” Ghazi said, “but it is also a message that needs to be heard.”

“What your definition of an American is in your mind is not necessarily an American,” he said. “An American can be a lot of things.”

Fordson is scheduled to play Saturday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at the Michael D. Rose Theatre in Memphis Tennessee.

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