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I Heart Halal festival celebrates Muslim businesses, personalities, culture

The first annual I Heart Halal Festival hosted a variety of vendors at Navy Pier on Friday. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

The inaugural “I Heart Halal” fest kicked off Friday at Navy Pier — an event filled with over a hundred vendors and thousands of guests celebrating Muslim-owned businesses, personalities and cultures.

Halal is an Arabic word that means “permissible” and is commonly used to refer to food that meets Islamic standards, but also can refer to other areas of life.

Participants at the three-day event, touted as the first halal lifestyle festival in America, include chefs, comedians, beauty gurus and fashion designers.

Guests can shop at various booths, choose from an array of food and let their kids play in bounce houses. The fest also has a designated praying area, as Muslims are required to pray five times a day.

Nura Afia, the first CoverGirl beauty ambassador who wears a hijab, will lead two beauty classes over the weekend showcasing looks using affordable products.

Afia said she feels honored to have her role with CoverGirl and knows it comes with major responsibility.

“I feel like … I’m showing girls there doesn’t need to be a bar set, that the sky’s the limit no matter what religion you are, what you believe in or how you dress or how you look,” Afia said.

People pray at the I Heart Halal Festival at Navy Pier on Friday. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Afia hopes the festival will grow and attract others outside the Muslim community.

“This is an event where everybody can come together and have fun and it’s not just like pushing things in your face, it’s just … a place where you can network and meet other people,” she said.

The festival, produced by the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, is expected to draw 20,000, according to Asma Ahad, the council’s director of Halal Market Development.

Makeup artist and Instagram beauty influencer Omehabiba Khan was tapped to help promote I Heart Halal, an event that is near to her heart since it was an idea Ahad started with Khan’s father, who died about a year ago.

Bara Elmasri, 32, an English teacher at MCC Academy, shops at the I Heart Halal Festival at Navy Pier on Friday. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Khan teared up talking about her father and said the media often portrays Muslims as “monsters” or enemies. Still, she said she sees perceptions about Muslims changing and realizes its not just those in her community that are drawn to halal products.

“I realized that there’s a market, there’s a need for this and there isn’t anyone fulfilling it. So I realized from the business perspective this is needed,” Khan said.

Ahad said what many people don’t realize is that Islamic culture has been very influential.

“A lot of Muslims are trendsetters,” Ahad said.

Fariha Siyadath (left) and Zainab Ibrahim, both 13, play at the I Heart Halal Festival at Navy Pier on Friday. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

One of those trendsetters is Nour Bishawi — known as Nour the Barber — who uses waxing techniques for grooming.  Bishawi said he travels around the world to teach people about his products and grooming methods.

Another beauty trend found at the fest is breathable nail polish, a type of nail polish that allows women to wash their nails while they’re painted, as pre-prayer washing is an important part of Islamic culture.

The I Heart Halal fest will also host two “modest fashion” shows — one was Friday night, the other is Saturday at 4 p.m. — featuring pieces from designers such as Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad (a member of the U.S. fencing team) and the popular clothing chain Akira.

Designer Sarah Ansari, founder of the clothing and lifestyle company Artizara, said her work is inspired by Islamic art and architecture. She was wearing a dress inspired by the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain.

Ansari said the fashion show is especially relevant after the past year of the #MeToo movement’s exposing the culture of harassment.

“The concept of ‘modest’ is very empowering,” Ansari said.

School girls on a field trip sign a poster at the I Heart Halal Festival at Navy Pier on Friday. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times