WASHINGTON — University of Memphis women’s basketball freshman Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir sat at President Barack Obama’s left elbow Tuesday evening, breaking her Ramadan fast after he introduced her as “an inspiration to all of us.”
The 18-year-old standout from Massachusetts, wearing a purple headscarf, was asked to stand as Obama told her story to a group of about 70 invited guests in the State Dining Room of The White House. The dinner was the traditional Muslim iftar, the breaking of the daylong fast at sunset.
Speaking from a podium, Obama took note of several elected leaders and members of his Cabinet and the mother of a slain Muslim-American soldier, then began speaking about Abdul-Qaadir.
“She’s not even 5-5,” he said, scanning the room. “Where is Bilqis?”
“Right here,” she said.
“Right here. Stand up Bilqis. I want everybody to know. She’s got heels on. She’s 5-5. … She recently told a reporter, ‘I’d like to really inspire a lot of young Muslim girls if they want to play basketball. Anything is possible. They can do it too.’
“As an honors student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis, Bilqis is an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls; she’s an inspiration to all of us.”
Abdul-Qaadir said afterward that she was surprised that he singled her out in his remarks.
“Just for me to be next to him was, like, thrilling,” she said. “It was the time of my life, it felt like.”
And what did they talk about over dinner? “We kind of talked about me challenging him to a game of H-O-R-S-E. … He said, ‘You look a little bit too quick.’ And he was like, ‘We should play sometime.'”
The dinner of organic chicken, potato and leek puree, peas and oranges with lemon sorbet was preceded by a reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House where dates and fruit juice were served by liveried waiters.
The Commercial Appeal was part of an expanded pool of reporters permitted to be present for Obama’s remarks to the group before the doors to the ornate room, with its portrait of a standing Lincoln, were closed.
Before the dinner, Abdul-Qaadir admitted being “just blown away” by the invitation, received only Friday. She said she hadn’t decided exactly what she wanted to say to the president, but planned to give him what she said is the best English translation of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
In his eight-minute remarks, Obama said there is a tradition of holding iftar dinners at the White House.
“Tonight’s iftar is a ritual that’s also being carried out this Ramadan at kitchen tables and mosques in all 50 states,” Obama said. “Islam, as we know, is part of America.”
Muslims fast during the daylight hours of the monthlong holiday period of soul-searching and reflection so, for an athlete like Abdul-Qaadir, that means a big breakfast before dawn.
The 5-4 freshman was recruited from the New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, Mass., after she and six siblings were home-schooled by their mother.
Playing in a head scarf and with her arms and legs covered, she was the Western Massachusetts Player of the Year, was part of The Boston Globe’s All-Dream Team and scored 3,070 points from eighth grade to graduation this year.
“I’m really liking Memphis,” she said.
A pre-med student, she’ll wear No. 10 on her jersey.
Features on her have appeared in both Sports Illustrated and SLAM magazines, and she’s all over YouTube.
Among the attendees at Tuesday night’s dinner were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, five members of congress, and 23 members of the diplomatic corps including ambassadors from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Indonesia, France, India, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Contact Washington correspondent Bartholomew Sullivan at (202) 408-2726.
Source: Memphis Commercial Appeal