South Asian Muslims Herald Eid al-Fitr With a Night of Communal Revelry
Eliyah Haque, 6, was getting her hands painted with henna in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. Asked what her favorite part of Eid celebrations was, she said: “We come together.”
South Asian Muslims both local to the area and from other boroughs and states flocked to Jackson Heights on Thursday evening to celebrate Chand Raat, a festival on the night before Eid al-Fitr to herald the holiday.
Chand Raat, a South Asian Muslim celebration that encapsulates the intersection of religion and culture, translates to “night of the moon” in Urdu and Hindi. It’s observed on the last night of Ramadan, when the new moon is sighted, indicating the end of the month of fasting.
The night’s action was centered in Diversity Plaza, the town square that honors the global mash-up of Jackson Heights. With some 180,000 people and 167 languages, it may be the most diverse neighborhood in the world. And it’s home to a prominent South Asian community.
“Eid Mubarak!” signs swung over the streets. Punjabi, Bollywood and Bangla anthems blasted from car speakers. Vendors set up tables selling salwar kameez of all colors and elaborate gold jewelry. (Some joke that Eid is the “Muslim Met Gala.”) Fireworks lit up the sky.
Rummana Amrin, a 24-year-old substitute teacher at P.S. 11 and a student at Teachers College at Columbia University, set up her henna table in front of Patel Brothers, an Indian supermarket, at 4 p.m. She has been a henna artist since 2017.
Ms. Amrin sat at her table, taking client after client until 3 a.m. “I would have people waiting for me for almost three hours because they would love the designs that I do,” she said.
But she doesn’t mind the taxing hours. “I genuinely love it because I see the way people react after their hands are adorned,” she said.
Anik Khan, a musical artist and an influential member of the community, was spotted in the crowds. “That’s Anik Khan!” some shouted as he headed to Ready Penny Inn, a dive bar in the thick of the action. (The bar was nearly empty — a sharp contrast to the chaos outside. Mr. Khan called it “the upside down in Jackson Heights.”)
When he was growing up, Mr. Khan, who lived in the Astoria section of Queens, came to Jackson Heights for Chand Raat every year with his cousins and sisters.
“My favorite part is actually having a place where people feel like it’s Eid,” he said. During Christmas and other holidays, he noted, there are decorations in the streets that make people feel the holiday spirit. “That’s what Jackson Heights has provided for Eid,” he said.
“That’s why I come — because you feel seen,” he added.
At about 9:30 p.m., Bangladeshi singers took the stage to perform classic, lively Bangla folk songs with the crowds singing along. The set ended with a performers’ rendition of Momtaz Begum’s “Morar Kokile.”
Close to the stage, a group of mostly young men who recently immigrated to the city were jumping up and down with their hands raised in the air to the beat of the fiery dholaks (drums).
Usama Siddiquee, a 32-year-old comedian, said onlookers would comment on how wild the scene was. “But that’s just us saying hi. You know? That’s just ‘Assalamualaikum,’” he said.
There are few planners of the Jackson Heights festival. According to neighborhood lore, people started gathering in the area to celebrate Chand Raat in the early 1980s, when waves of South Asians began immigrating to the city and Jackson Heights became a hub for their culture.
“You see so much joy, but in an unfiltered, organic way,” said Shekar Krishnan, a councilman who represents the Jackson Heights and Elmhurst neighborhoods.
Mr. Krishnan said he treasures running into friends on every street corner on Chand Raat. It’s a large community, but a close-knit one.
For Nusrat Hossain, a 26-year-old medical assistant, the gathering is grounding and refreshing. She grew up in Elmhurst and always visited Jackson Heights for Chand Raat. She still runs into former schoolmates she hasn’t seen in years.
“It’s a reflection of the vibrancy, power and presence of our South Asian Muslim community — in Jackson Heights, our Bangladeshi community in particular,” Mr. Krishnan said.
On March 26, 73rd Street on 37th avenue was renamed Bangladesh Street, an initiative that Mr. Krishnan helped lead. “This is recognition long overdue,” he said. That intersection is the heart of the Bangladeshi community in New York City, according to Mr. Krishnan.
On Chand Raat, Mr. Krishnan seeks out Fuska House, a food truck. Fuchka, a Bangladeshi street snack of fried semolina dough filled with spicy chickpeas, potatoes and toppings, is a favorite among revelers.
There is also a celebration in the Jamaica section of Queens, another South Asian hub. In a phone interview, Nabiha Khan, 22, a henna artist, said she always sets up there somewhere between 167th Street and 173rd Street on Hillside Avenue. She has been doing this since 2016, painting as many as 100 hands in a night, she said.
“If you stay out there, they’ll keep coming,” she said. “It’s backbreaking work.”
Ms. Khan taught herself henna when she was 12, after being inspired by a cousin who would decorate the family’s hands every Chand Raat.
For Ms. Khan, Chand Raat is a night of reflection. “Fasting every day for 30 days is not easy,” she said. “And the purpose of this month is so much bigger than just starving yourself. It’s supposed to be for reflection, for having gratitude, for learning that you can be more disciplined.”
When she was not at a henna stall during the night, she spent time with her mother. They will also cook together for Eid al-Fitr gatherings today. Since house hopping is traditional on the holiday, dozens of families stop by her home every year.
“Even though it’s hectic, even though it’s crazy, it’s a part of the ride,” Mr. Khan, the artist, said. He briefly lived in Virginia while he was in high school, where there was little South Asian diversity, and returned to Queens with a heightened sense of cultural pride. “I’ll give up square footage any day for the culture,” he said.