Screen grab from the ICNA-MAS website for the 2015 ICNA convention. Photo credit: ICNA-MAS website.

ICNA-MAS Bazaars aren’t so Glamorous from a Vendor’s Perspective

Screen grab from the ICNA-MAS website for the 2015 ICNA convention. Photo credit: ICNA-MAS website.

Screen grab from the ICNA-MAS website for the 2015 ICNA convention. Photo credit: ICNA-MAS website.

By Mahvish Irfan
TMO Contributing Writer

Every memorial weekend the ICNA-MAS Convention attracts a staggering crowd of 20,000 attendees who are eager to learn from a plethora of international scholars, get involved with important causes in the Muslim community and, of course, shop till they drop in the renowned bazaar. The story and struggle of the bazaar vendors, who bring life to the event and serve as its financial backbone, often goes unheard of however.

This year the 40th ICNA-MAS Annual Convention, held in the Baltimore Convention Center in Baltimore, Maryland from May 23-24, 2015, will proudly host 842 booths from all over the country. Fifty-five percent of nearby hotels will be sold out nearly 4 months ahead of time.

The trouble for vendors begins with registration. A few days before registration officially opens online, vendors are emailed a layout of the bazaar to decide which booth they would like to purchase and informed of vending terms and conditions. Each booth is a small 10’ x 10’ in size and comes with a single table and two chairs. Prices are really expensive, but given the large amount of attendees that come and high cost of operating the convention, both booth size and prices make fair enough sense. The second that registration starts, however, is when difficulty for the vendors reaches another level altogether.

“It’s like an all-out war,” informs Riem Omar, owner of Reem Dream, 12-year ICNA-MAS Convention vendor and three-year first place winner for Best Booth Design. “Everyone is hunting over the same prime booths and more than likely you will not get your first pick because someone beats you to it by a millisecond.” The frustrating experience is made worse by the fact that “as each second passes by, more and more booths are being swallowed up and within five minutes everything is gone. Each year it gets more difficult and competitive.”

This year, many vendors are complaining about the registration website crashing repeatedly and not having their payments processed properly. Since each second is precious during these moments, the little time wasted because of these issues have big consequences, such as losing a spot or not having a spot. Officials say they try their best every year to accommodate for the hundreds of registrants and test out the registration system before releasing it to the public but complications are inevitable.

“It’s like having hundreds of people exit through one, small door. Getting everything organized is very difficult,” says board member Hamid Siddiqui.

People working at ICNA are normally working on a volunteer basis, which makes it more tasking to have everything operate smoothly. In any case, longtime vendors state this year has been the worst and most stressful experience they have had securing their booths because of rampant technical issues and the exorbitant amount of people registering.

This difficulty is just the beginning. After booking their booths and hotel rooms, vendors spend weeks packing their merchandise, planning marketing strategies, determining their layout and taking care of other logistics. As the event nears, they usually arrive a day early from the convention date to unload their merchandise.

“The loading dock time is usually pretty hectic. We travel for hours in multiple vehicles to finally get there, hundreds of vendors are restless and dying to get inside, we wait in line for a long time and hope volunteers are there to help us unload heavy material” says Madiha Irfan, manager at Nu Look Salon & Boutique and 6-year ICNA-MAS Convention vendor.

Once unloading is out of the way, vendors spend up to 12-hours setting up their booths. When the bazaar opens the next day, the hours normally run as follows: Saturday, 11:30 AM – 11:00 PM; Sunday, 10:00 AM – 11:00 PM; Monday, 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM.

“We are on our feet for over 12-hours at a time, working extremely hard. We have to get there before and leave after the people. What I love about ICNA is that it’s a great Muslim gathering and Muslim businesses are able to get a lot of exposure. But, the people are very rude, unreasonable and unappreciative. Their behavior is un-Islamic,” expresses Omar.

The irony of the convention is something to marvel at. In this large, wonderful, bustling Islamic gathering where people are taught to emulate the lovingness of the Prophet (peace be upon him), the all-too-common belligerent behavior of many people in the bazaar is anything but prophetic. For years, vendors across the board have complained about the outrageous bargaining habits of shoppers.

“It’s detrimental to Muslim businesses,” continues Irfan. “We should help support one another but what I see very often in these conventions are very vicious bargainers that tear great vendors down instead of helping them grow. In the end, this is harmful to the whole Muslim community. Ironically, these same people wouldn’t dare to bargain with a non-Muslim business but treat Muslim vendors almost sub-human. Some have even destroyed merchandise and walked away.”

The expense of being a vendor is much more costly than people realize. Vendors have to factor in costs for merchandise, booths, taxes, any extra tables, chairs or clothing racks, parking for their multiple vehicles, hotel, food and any additional overhead. When all components are put together, it can be enormously difficult to accumulate profit.

“I used to bargain as if vendors received their merchandise for free,” admits Maryam Sadiq, a frequent ICNA-MAS bazaar customer. “But eventually I began to understand it’s incredibly difficult for vendors to make profit and they work very, very hard. I see a lot of the businesses have marked their prices extremely low to attract customers and realize how much damage we’ve done because even people fight over that and it’s shameful. Vendors need to make money, that’s what a business is all about, people can’t wrap their head around that.”

“This is not play for us,” says Omar. “It’s our main job. And yet, people are asking for wholesale prices when we are a retail business. A lot of customers have no shame and can get nasty quickly. We need to teach shoppers the Islamic way to purchase and have people realize it’s very hard for us to come and it’s very, very stressful work. What they are doing is harmful.”

Perhaps having a session on Islamic business transaction and consumer etiquette during the annual ICNA-MAS Conventions can help to alleviate this burgeoning problem. Vendors are even rumored to be setting up a union to protect themselves because they are fed up with the way they are treated. Regardless, it does not take much to understand the high cost of being a Muslim vendor financially, physically and emotionally.

ICNA Launches Campaign on Understanding Sharia

By Rida Fozi, ICNA

Hartford, CT (June 5, 2011) – From a thought-provoking performance at Sunday’s entertainment night, to jam-packed sessions with various scholars the ICNA-MAS Convention was the place to be this Memorial Day weekend.

2011 convention videos are now available exclusively on ICNA TV channel.

More people attended the ICNA convention this year than any other in the past 4 decades.

A record 18,900 people attended the three-day conference entitled “Quran: Guidance Towards a Just and Balanced Way,” 4,900 of which were unique online viewers. Convention-goers benefited from nearly 80 sessions by over 100 prominent scholars, leaders and activists from across the country and around the world. The overwhelmingly successful Youth Conference ran parallel to the ICNA-MAS Convention, and crowds lined the entrance as speakers discussed “Diamonds in the Rough: Heroes of the Past.”

Reverend Dennis Perry of the Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA was honored for his interfaith and community work with the Community Service Award.

National and local leadership of organizations including ISNA, CAIR, MSA, MANA and MUNA attended the convention this year, and were recognized at the Community Leaders Luncheon on Sunday.

The Islamic Circle of North America launched its nationwide, yearlong “Understanding Shariah” campaign at this year’s conference, which, according to president Zahid Bukhari, “will educate the American public on the definition and place of Shariah in Islam.” Says Bukhari, “Our campaign will also counter Islamophobia that is fostered and spread by groups who hide behind the false guise of an anti-Shariah movement.”

ICNA plans to develop an online portal as part of the campaign in order to support those engaged in similar efforts to shed light on religious freedom and the concept of Shariah. The organization also hopes to mobilize the Muslim community to undertake several grassroots efforts to better explain Shariah, and intends to partner with various faith and civic organizations to reach this goal.

The convention also marked the beginning of ICNA and ICNA Relief’s Back to School Giveaway campaign, a two-month long initiative that will culminate in a series of free school supply giveaways in low-income areas in the month of Ramadan (August 2011). The Back to School Giveaway, previously hosted in New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC is now expanding to Houston, Chicago and Southern California. Mahmood Aijazi, national director of the Back to School Giveaway hopes more cities will follow ICNA’s lead and host giveaways in their respective areas.

Aijazi says the initiative is necessary because “it’s part of our duty to help our society. We need to go out, reach out to others and give back to our communities.”

Social media played a significant role in this year’s convention, with ICNA hitting its 10,000th Twitter follower and 14,000 Facebook likes over the weekend. Perhaps the most creative initiatives at this year’s conference were the “surprise events”, exclusive to those who are members of ICNA’s social media fan base.

The attendees then enjoyed one-on-one time with renowned speakers. ICNA also offered a live webcast of selected sessions for the second year in a row, and families as far away as Trinidad were able to enjoy the lectures. One convention attendee said this spurred his family to raise the money to attend in person next year.

And bringing families together is a staple of the convention. In the middle of the day you’ll find parents and their children lunching together or friends strolling through the bazaar searching for the perfect gift. Strangers will stop you and ask your opinion on the right hijab color or ask you to borrow your charger to recharge their cell phones. The ICNA-MAS Convention is that experience that brings together people of all backgrounds for a unified purpose. And as one speaker said, “It just gets better and better every year.”

Article: Rida Fozi. Photographs: Arfa Aijazi, Waqas Syed, Rida Fozi. Videos: Talha Faruqui, Anas Faruqui