On the Track or Off It, Marina's Khatib Keeps the Faith

The questions, Hana Khatib says, usually start at the starting line. Why are you wearing that? Are you cold or something? You're not really going to run that way, are you?

Granted, the start of a race isn't the most convenient time or place to explain the dress code of one's religion. But Khatib doesn't mind. She enjoys telling people why she always keeps her head covered in public, why she trains and competes in baggy sweats and long-sleeved T-shirts, even on the hottest days. She's happy to answer any and all questions, she says. Anything to help others understand what it means to be a Muslim.

It wasn't always this way. Years before Khatib became the ever-cheerful distance runner and long and triple jumper on Marina's track and field team, she stood before her fifth-grade class, speechless. Her teacher had invited her to tell the class why she suddenly started coming to school with a scarf around her head, why she would no longer be wearing shorts or skirts or short-sleeved shirts like everyone else.

Khatib couldn't say. She was too shy to speak. She wasn't sure whether her classmates could understand. She wasn't sure whether she knew herself. Six years later, she laughs at the memory. It wasn't always easy, she says, growing up Muslim in a predominantly Christian society.

Adolescence is supposedly a time when kids crave to be one of the crowd. Teen-agers, we're told, will do anything to fit in. Khatib, 17, says she has never felt that way. As a devout Muslim, she will never be able to date or attend boy-girl parties. She cannot go to the prom. She cannot listen to the music of Madonna or Prince. If she goes to the beach--or into the water--she does so fully clothed. She isn't to show her hair, ears or feet to anyone outside her own family.

It isn't a matter of simply following rules, she says. It's not strictness for strictness' sake. Muslims adhere to a variety of guidelines that ensure modesty and help them avoid temptation, not an easy task in hedonistic Southern California. Khatib certainly isn't complaining. No, she can't wear Spandex tights in public. She doesn't own a bathing suit. She reads Ranger Rick, not Vogue or Cosmo. She watches "Home Improvement" or "Tiny Toons," not "Beverly Hills, 90210."

And sports? Her mother, Karima, says a few of her Muslim friends might frown if they knew Hana was spending her afternoons running and jumping in front of mixed company. But Karima--a Michigan native who converted to Islam 13 years after marrying her engineer husband, Hassan--says the important thing is Hana not draw attention to her beauty.

In a sport like swimming or gymnastics, that would be impossible. But being bogged down in baggy track sweats and T-shirts seems a lot less attractive, she says.

"You live here, you raise your kids here . . . it's not easy," Karima says. "You do what you can to survive."

That means wearing billowy clothing made from crinkled cotton to the beach because it's not so revealing underwater. It means finding out which fast-food chains are serving hamburger buns made with vegetable oil, not lard, so as to be sure not to eat anything made from pork. It means having a couple of lop-eared rabbits as pets because, according to the beliefs of Islam, dogs are considered unclean.

For Hana, it also means taking a few extra precautions, especially during cross-country season. Last fall was her first attempt at the sport, one plagued in recent years with especially hot weather. She says the heat didn't bother her all that much. She got used to it, she said. She didn't push herself when she started feeling woozy. Plus, she carried a spray bottle of water to keep her cool along the way.

Until this week, Khatib was dealing with a different sort of setback. Muslims around the world were celebrating Ramadan, a month-long fast to commemorate what Muslims believe to be the revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad. This meant during the sawm , or fast, Khatib wasn't able to eat or drink anything from dawn to dusk. So she cut out running and trained for the less-strenuous jump events instead.

She shrugs and she smiles. Sports are hardly the most important thing in her life, she says. She runs and she jumps because it relieves tension and stress, because the fresh air and sunshine is a welcome change to the darkness of the mosque. But sports are just an aside, she says. Her greatest dedication is to Islam. That is why she prays five times daily; that is why, even while overhearing talk at school of parties and dancing and drinking, she has little trouble avoiding the temptations.

"I think it would be interesting to go to a party," Khatib says. "But it sounds kind of tiring to be up until 2 or 3 in the morning."

She says she realizes some of her non-Muslim peers might not understand, but she's used to it. Sure, people have tossed rude comments her way. Guys sometimes drive by and yell out things about the way she is dressed. People, quite innocently, see the scarf on her head and ask if she's got her hair up in curlers. It gets to be amusing, she says.

"One time a friend and I were sitting on the beach, watching a surf contest," Khatib says. "We were all covered up as usual. These two surfers walk by and one of them looks at us and says, 'Wow! Sun protection 2,000!'

"We started laughing because, well, it's kind of true."

So true it's not even worth questioning.

Barbie Ludovise's column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Ludovise by writing her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, 92626 or by calling (714) 966-5847.

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