Smack in the middle of the controversy over adding a Muslim holiday to the Hillsborough school calendar, the very holiday in question, Eid al-Fitr, was celebrated a week ago Thursday.

My daughter and her husband, who were visiting from New York, left at 7:30 a.m. for the mosque at the Islamic Society of the Tampa Bay Area, the largest mosque in Florida, on E Sligh Avenue.

As soon as they got close, it was clear this was one big holiday. Police were directing traffic to the parking areas, as the space usually used for parking had been set up as a carnival for the kids. So many people had come that the mosque was full, and the lawn all the way up to sidewalk was being used for the men to pray.

My daughter, who still can’t figure out how to wear a scarf, was about to enter the mosque, and a woman said, “Oh, no, sister, there is no room.”

A tent had been set up for the overflow of women.

The estimate is 7,000 people had come from all over Tampa Bay. There are other mosques, but many come here to celebrate. It is the one place where numbers make this holiday feel like one.

My daughter and her husband said that people were dressed all different ways – Pakistani women in colorful silk, Turkish men in leather jackets, teenage girls in tight jeans, little girls in party dresses. My son-law-in-law, who is Egyptian, said he didn’t hear much Arabic spoken, and my daughter was surprised to hear a group of women speaking Spanish.

Their observations reflect reality. Ahmed Bedier, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told me there are 45,000 Muslims in the Tampa Bay area. The ethnic breakdown is about 30 percent African-American, 35 percent South Asians (Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and so on) and 25 percent Arab. The rest are converts, including a growing number of Hispanics, which would explain the Spanish.

At the mosque, my daughter and her husband recognized Bedier from his photo in newspaper clips I had sent them. He asked for donations for victims of the earthquake in Pakistan and said that day’s goal was $25,000. They made the goal, Bedier told me this week. They had raised $50,000 in the few weeks after the earthquake.

I had heard him say on True Talk, the WMNF show he hosts with Samar Jarrah, that the American Muslim Task Force for Disaster Relief had pledged $20-million in the two weeks after the earthquake. That was on top of $10-million it had already raised for Katrina. (MORE)



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