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RIS: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

The 2006 5th Annual Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) Convention has left the building.

There were definitely outstanding items on the menu this year along with some stuff so ridiculous that some people should certainly be given their severance paychecks and attendant pink slips.

The Good: Speakers and topics. This year’s theme was moderation and its relevance within the sunnah – perfect. Most of the speakers had some very poignant reminders. In jointly addressing the topic of social reform alongside Rabbi Lerner, Shk Hamza Yusuf’s remarks about the level of depression that’s rampant among today’s society and dogs on Prozac were priceless. Dr. Tariq Ramadan on how nabeyuna Muhammad maintained Islamic principles while adjusting to cultural differences of Madinah (vs. Makkah), as well as his comments on how Zidane was regarded by French society due to his major contribution in bringing France to prominence in the soccer arena, all in all very thought-provoking. His admonishment to the crowd, advising them not to applaud at various intervals says much about him. Robert Fisk – although somewhat repetitive vis-a-vis his usual literary discourse, but his expertise on Mideast affairs is substantial nonetheless. My altercation of the eyes in the parking lot with Dr. Tariq Suwaidan left me slightly embarassed, but for the better.

The people, I noticed were very upbeat. jovial and cooperative. It felt almost like I was back in school, on campus with people making themselves comfortable in a corner on the floor with their bags and belongings in a pile close by, or in the prayer hall sitting in a casual manner on the mats, or young adults engaging in many a lively debate on a wide variety issues. The long train of faces from highschool, college, work, online and public life never ended. Every single day, every single hour, I ran into someone that I hadn’t seen in a long time and this resulted in a gradual lengthening and rearrangement of my intended schedule. Some I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. Others, I was surprised plenty by – since I never imagined them as the type to be interested in such places and events.

The venue itself – the MTCCC – was perfect. The photos on the website do not convey the appropriate sense of size and space; ergo they do not do it justice.

The Bad: Ticket fraud, although nowhere near the scale of last year’s complete fiasco, was indeed a problem again this year, despite apparently earnest efforts at its prevention. The lineup on Friday caused plenty of upset folks who missed out on the initial speakers, with two lines estimated at several hundred to nearly a thousand people each – and these were for the people who had pre-paid for their tickets already. I saw plenty of people who were breezing through the doors due to the neglectful gaze of “security”. Many people sidestepped security altogether by going in and out through the elevators. The curtains at the back of the main hall which led to the prayer and bazaar area were of course leaking people every now and then. I ran into friends who said straight to my face that they did not pay and had no green wristband either, something which could be easily replicated multiple times with a color printer that costs the same as the $45 ticket price. Further compounding that unsettling feeling was the sight of RIS volunteers begging for handouts, holding makeshift (cardboard) donation boxes labeled “RIS Donations”.

The “Grand Souk” was anything but. The vendors faced higher costs this year for their booths, quite possibly the outcome of attempts to offset last year’s six-figure losses due to ticket fraud. And the vendors knew it and they weren’t quiet about it, for sure. They’ve been thinking of writing a formal class-action complaint to the organizers and some even said if this trend continues, then they would reconsider future participation. Certainly, this year I noticed the absence of some vendors that had been present at earlier RIS conferences. Other vendors who were regulars commented on the smaller crowd. One vendor even adamantly insisted that this year’s attendance was lower than last year’s, pegging it at about 10,000 people. Last year’s estimate was about 12,000 and the expected attendance this year was ball-parked at about 15,000 before the conference began.

Bottlenecks. Although the escalators were in good working order, the fact that the main ones were right next to the main hall was problematic. People like to socialize. No duh. So when they got out of the main hall after every lecture, hundreds of them would be milling about in front of the escalators – slowing down anyone and everyone who wanted to get out of the main hall as well as those who wanted to go up for some fresh air. There were no clearly defined walkway areas on the floor, and no enforcement of such walkways. Had there been designated walkways, then congestion would have been greatly reduced.

Food: Although they had some variety and certainly not as expensive as last year, many people were still upset about the fact that only a handful of POS units were available to service thousands of people all at once. The result? A massive lineup of several hundred people at any given time, which meant many people either stayed in line and missed congregational prayers or missed out on some of the lectures or speeches they had been waiting for. A couple of small, donated microwaves were pressed into service for reheating food and of course, not being commercial units meant that they fell out of order from time to time. People walked away disappointed with cold pizza or biryani. Many of the over-worked volunteers weren’t very particular with the amount of change being given back, sometimes handing back a ten dollar bill instead of a five – as would have been appropriate – thus RIS lost money in this area as well.

The Ugly: The quality of the concert was terrible. The hall itself was built for acoustics insofar as a single speaker, voice-only, was concerned. It was not built for concerts, and the resultant sound quality for the audience was poor. Nearly all the singers were very clearly lip-synching, making a mockery of themselves and insulting so many of their starstruck teeny-bopper fans. One of the groups’ lead singer didn’t even know how to sing – his voice cracked four or five times in a single stretch.

The food court tables was another issue. You could never find a clean table. Never mind the fact that the MTCCC janitorial staff were busy cleaning up non-stop. The fact is, we’re Muslims. Why can’t you lave the table cleaner than you found it? Out of over a hundred tables, you couldn’t find any that didn’t have rice or bits of salad or cheese strewn all over. That fact alone turned off so many people from even buying food at the food-court in the first place and instead they opted to go outside to restaurants and eateries such as RichTree or Harvey’s, etc.

I’d give this year’s RIS conference a 6.5 out of 10.

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Filed under: Current Affairs, Exhaust, Riposte

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