When the organizers of the I Heart Halal festival planned the event’s inaugural year at Navy Pier in 2018, they set a modest goal hoping for 5,000 attendees to show up for the weekend-long celebration. In fact, 17,000 people turned out for the fest.
“I think people were really hungry for this kind of event,” says co-founder Asma Ahad, who previously worked as a product developer for Kraft Foods in Glenview, where she completed one of the first research studies in North America that looked at halal consumers — those who abide by food preparation set forth by Muslim law — and how everyday products resonate with them.
I HEART HALAL
When: April 12-14 (doors open at 11 am each day)
Where: Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand
Tickets: Starting at $10 (in advance)
As her research grew, so did the idea for a mass consumer event. Ahad partnered with Salman Chaudry (a former event application developer for the Merchandise Mart who now has his own event firm) to design the festival. Support came from various sponsors including the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, whose goal is to promote avenues for multiculturalism with events like I Heart Halal. It is in fact the only event of its kind in the country that shines a spotlight not just on halal food, but also on halal as a lifestyle concept — with an extension of the ethically conscious and positive mindfulness ethos to fashion, entertainment, wellness and travel.
“We’re really trying to promote halal as not only a belief of Muslim consumers, but that it does resonate with the non-Muslim population as well. Halal offerings fit into the food-conscious movement with products and packaged goods that are sustainably sourced and better for you,” says Ahad, encouraging the greater Chicago community to be part of the weekend, which will take place at Navy Pier April 12-14, with expanded programming on four stages.
“The core values of halal really are compassion and being socially conscious and ethical in lifestyle choices; those are values that are universal,” Ahad says. “How we can all come together and connect on shared values — that’s the conversation we wanted to have, and also to give people from outside the Muslim community a way to better understand us through our culture and break down barriers and misunderstandings that some might have.”
Booking a substantial headlining act, Lupe Fiasco, for a Friday night concert certainly helps in that mission. The Chicago-born rapper is a practicing Muslim and, as part of the conscious hip-hop movement, promotes positive messages and social issues in his lyrics. In addition to appearances from rapper Neelam Hakeem and Chicago emcee Kayem, opening Lupe’s set will be Brother Ali, who also follows Islam and whose music is likewise rooted in socially conscious themes with messages of hope and acceptance.
“It [might not be] well known to people who’ve only engaged rap music and hip-hop culture through the mainstream media, but hip-hop started as a youth movement that held Islamic teachings and virtues at its core,” says Brother Ali, who was drawn to I Heart Halal due to the event’s work with the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN) on the South Side of Chicago. “Likewise, wherever Islam has gone, it’s inspired incredible creative energy in the people who embraced it. Hip-hop is the modern voice of Muslims, and Islam is the spiritual heart of hip-hop.”
Additional main stage entertainment throughout I Heart Halal includes a Saturday night “America’s Least Wanted” stand-up comedy showcase hosted by Chicago funny man Azhar Usman, with sets from Ismael Loutfi (“Jimmy Kimmel Live”), Paul Elia (“Conan,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), Danish Maqbool (featured in Forbes and Wall Street Journal), Aron Kader (Axis of Evil Comedy Tour) and Zainab Johnson (“Late Night With Seth Meyers,” “Last Comic Standing”).
On Sunday, there will be screenings from the Canadian-based Mosquers Film Festival, which will present four award-winning short films and host a 24-hour short film competition, as well as the Breaking Barriers Pitch Competition, a “Shark Tank”-style session for up-and-coming startups to win up to $5,000 for their ideas.
There will also be plenty of food vendors in the Taste of Halal Food Hall as well as Lettuce Entertain You serving halal-certified food at three onsite restaurants, plus expansive culinary demos including appearances from “MasterChef’s” Amanda Saab and “Top Halal Chef” host Sameer Sarmast.
The weekend also offers a family-friendly kids area, lifestyle panels and a comprehensive bazaar with vendors offering halal-sanctioned fashion, beauty, art and travel goods.
Humaira Syed, the creator of Niswa Fashion, will return to I Heart Halal this year with her latest modest fashion designs showcased on the runway and for sale in the bazaar. Syed started her line in 2016, after a time studying to become an Islamic scholar.
“I wanted to do something for the community,” Syed says. “For Muslim women, finding modest wear that’s fully lined with long sleeves and longer lengths can be difficult — especially for fancier items, like dresses (called abayas) for our holiday Eid, which is coming up in June.” Her latest designs, which will be on display this weekend and are for sale at a Hanover Park store space, incorporate traditional embroidery and sequins like fashion you’d find at a major retailer.
“We are as ‘normal’ as anyone else,” says Syed, disheartened by some of the misconceptions by the media about the Muslim community. “That’s why I Heart Halal is such a great initiative. It’s a way for people to know more about our culture and show what we are really all about. It’s great exposure for our brands, too. We don’t really have a professional fashion show and this could be something that could open doors for us at events like New York Fashion Week.”
Chaudry agrees. “The idea of creating community and inclusiveness is built into the fabric of our program. The values of halal are rooted in compassion, and as human beings we are inherently compassionate creatures,” he adds. “This event is really about coming together in meaningful conversations and making progress as a broad community.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.