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DINING: Chuck E.'s in love -- with Muslims!

  |  Brooklyn Paper
Posted: 09-23-09 12:15 AM

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By Lysandra Ohrstrom

for The Brooklyn Paper

Chuck E. Cheese would never be confused with an Arabic restaurant, but hundreds of Muslim-Americans crammed the eatery inside the Atlantic Terminal Mall as part of the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival on Sunday.

Apparently, this is a big tradition.

For at least five years, Muslim families originally from Beirut and Bangladesh to Khartoum and Kuala Lumpur have flocked to Chuck E. Cheese on Eid, which marks the end of the month-long Ramadan fast. The tradition has spread from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Bay Ridge entirely by word-of-mouth.

This year, Sara Ahmed went for the first time. A native of the Sudan who has been in America for just 15 months, she joined the faithful at the suggestion of her English tutor.

“This is not planned, but most of the Muslims come here because we just like to do something joyful for the kids,” said Ahmed, who lives in Prospect Heights with her husband and three children. “Since we’ve been fasting for a month, it usually involves food.”

But food isn’t the most important item on the Chuck E. Cheese menu. The restaurant also features games and rides, which are as universal a Ramadan tradition as the dawn-to-dusk fast and sexual abstinence.

“Every amusement park would be full [in Khartoum] because this is how people celebrate Eid,” Ahmed explained.

All around her, suited boys and girls in party dresses gobbled up their pizza and scrambled for the video games, rides, and the jungle gym. Colorfully veiled women, speaking dozens of different Arabic dialects, sat in booths surrounding the play area and tried to chat against the drone of music, ringing, and squealing.

It might be one of the most incongruous, organic immigrant traditions to emerge yet, though the sight of hundreds of observant Muslims celebrating the end of the Muslim holy month at a fast-food chain restaurant is no odder than other religious or cultural traditions that have adapted to Brooklyn’s environment. Hasidic Jews, for example, have used ferry boats to assist in casting bread upon the water to mark the New Year, and Italian-Americans carry an 80-ton statue through Williamsburg during the Feast of Nola every summer.

A spokeswoman for the company that owns Chuck E. Cheese said she did not believe that Muslim-Americans actively organize their post-Ramadan events at the restaurant, but consider it more of a spontaneous thing.

“I’m sure that the local management is aware of it,” said the spokeswoman Brenda Holloway. “We are open to serve everyone, everyday. We welcome everyone into our restaurant.”

While there are plenty of fast-food chains in the borough, Chuck E. Cheese is near several large mosques, including the Al Farooq on Atlantic Avenue. But it’s the mini-amusement park inside, rather than the pizza, that draws Muslims back year after year.

“I’d be at an amusement park in Ramallah, too,” said Youssef Adnan as his 2-year-old son Adam circled on the carousel. “But it is better over there than it is here. … In Ramallah, everyone is out together there in the streets, you’re with your family, there are fireworks and olive picking, and you eat off the fig tree.”

Even first generation Muslim-Americans who have spent every Ramadan in America are not immune to the nostalgia.

“I like it here, but I have a feeling that Yemen would be better,” said 10-year-old Bothina al Mohammad. “My mom showed me pictures and there were people walking around with their friends outside, talking, girls with henna. It looked really fun.”

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