In 1996, when Muhib Beekun was in the fifth grade, he and his stamp-collecting family enjoyed stamps honoring holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah and, more recently, Kwanzaa and Cinco de Mayo. One day, Muhib realized that there was no American stamp that honored any Muslim holiday—not even the two 'ids, or feasts, that are highlights of the Muslim calendar. He asked his mother, Nadiah, about it, and after several letters to Muslim organizations led to little encouragement, he placed a call from his home in Sparks, Nevada to a family friend in Cincinnati, Ohio: Aminah Assilmi.
Muhib was calling the right person, he knew. Assilmi, director of the International Union of Muslim Women, knew how to get things done. She helped Muhib write to Postmaster General William Henderson to ask him why there was no 'id stamp. Henderson's staff explained to Muhib about the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee and how it could be petitioned to recommend the issue of a new stamp.
"We can do that, but we need help," Assilmi told Muhib.
Muhib agreed. "Everybody says something is impossible, so they do nothing. If I don't do something, it will not happen," he thought. He drew an 'id stamp and sent it to Henderson, with another letter. Then he, Nadiah and Assilmi began contacting Islamic schools to raise interest and get other kids on board: A letter, e-mail, phone, petition and post-card campaign was born, and it gradually gained the enthusiastic support of thousands of Muslim children across the nation. Some kids created their own designs for 'id stamps and decorated a mile-long paper banner.
"Mostly it went through moms and kids," says Nadiah. "The post office bent over backward to help," she adds. "But when they received about the 8000th letter, they called telling us to 'stop, stop, please!'"
The Internet, too, was crucial to success, says Chaplain Maryam Mostoufi. "Modern technology made this a reality in a short time. Islam teaches that, if we walk toward God, He will come running to us. We just didn't know He would do it on the Internet!"
When the 13-member Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee made a recommendation to Henderson in favor of an 'id stamp, he signed it, authorizing the first U.S. stamp to recognize a major Islamic event.
Phil Jordan, consultant to the advisory committee, was asked to find an artist, and quickly suggested calligrapher and instrument-maker Mohamed Zakariya, who agreed to the project. "It is encouraging to see an 'id message on an ordinary stamp," says Zakariya, whose work graces galleries and museums from New York to Qatar, sundials and astrolabes in the airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and displays at the Saudi Aramco Exhibit in Dhahran.
Zakariya used classical styles, tools and materials to create his design, including paper specially prepared for Arabic calligraphy. After a year's sketching, he proposed two versions of the stamp design to Henderson.
The one chosen uses a Turkish style of calligraphy in gold letters on a royal-blue background. The words, in Arabic, are "'id mubarak" ("blessed feast"), a phrase as common among Muslims as "Merry Christmas" among Christians, and equally applicable to the two major feasts of the Muslim calendar: 'id al-fitr, the feast of fast-breaking, which follows the holy month of Ramadan, and 'id al-adha, the feast of the sacrifice, which follows the days of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah. The words "EID GREETINGS" run above and below the calligraphy.
Can English-speaking Americans appreciate a stamp whose design is mostly Arabic? "You can appreciate Italian opera without understanding Italian," says Zakariya, "so I'm sure they can appreciate the beauty of Arabic calligraphy without understanding Arabic."
Five years after Muhib decided to "do something," the stamp he wanted to see is a reality. Some 75 million of the 34-cent stamps have been printed and were released in a first-day-of-issue ceremony at Des Plaines, Illinois on September 1. One Muslim student, on first hearing that it had been approved by the us Postal Service, said, "Now I feel like an American."
John Marlowe ([email protected]) is a free-lance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area and the Peloponnese.
Kathleen Burke is a freelance photographer and writer who lives near Chicago .